Pope may visit Israel next year

Recent Meggido church discovery adds to papal motivation to visit Holy Land.

Israel can begin readying for another papal visit. Pope Benedict XVI responded positively to an invitation extended to him by President Moshe Katsav when the two met on Thursday at the Vatican. It was the second invitation to the pope to visit Israel. He had received a written invitation from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in July. Katsav told reporters that the visit may take place as early as next year. If indeed this does occur, it will be the second papal visit to Israel in a six year span. The late Pope John Paul II made an historic journey to Israel in 2000, visiting Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. His spirit prevailed during Thursday's meeting Katsav said afterwards. Although Pope Benedict has received many invitations to visit foreign countries, the incentive to visit Israel lies in the recent discovery in Megiddo of the remains of what is believed to be the oldest Christian church in Israel, dating back some eighteen centuries. According to Katsav the pope was profoundly interested in the discovery and was delighted with the framed photographs of the church's mosaics that Katsav presented to him. Like the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Churches the Vatican owns considerable property in Israel for which it shoulders a heavy tax burden which it would like to reduce. The issue has been a matter of dispute for many years and remains unresolved. Katsav promised Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican's secretary of state that he would do his utmost to find a solution to the problem through accelerated talks between Vatican representatives and the Israel authorities. Israel is reluctant to give the Vatican any special tax exemption for fear that all other Christian Churches with property in Israel would demand the same consideration. Katsav recently received a delegation from the Lutheran Church which is also involved in a tax dispute with Israel. Other than the tax problem the president and the pope discussed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both in its political and humanitarian aspects.