'Significant' progress cited in talks between Vatican and Israel

But no gains seen on issue of taxation of church property.

Pope Benedict 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Negotiations between Israel and the Vatican have made "significant progress," after a decade of inconclusive talks, according to a joint communique issued last week. The assessment followed a biannual meeting between senior Israeli and Church officials in Rome last week dealing with several major issues of dispute, including taxation and church properties, and came after officials from the Holy See voiced increasingly open frustration with the Jewish state over a stalemate in talks. "The work of this plenary meeting of the commission took place in a climate of great cordiality and goodwill, and accomplished significant progress toward the shared goal, both substantively, and in terms of putting in place procedures to improve desired effectiveness, of the on-going negotiations," the joint communique read. A member of the Israeli delegation said Thursday that the most significant progress was made on church legal matters, and not on the critical dispute over taxation of church properties in the Holy Land. "We made significant progress on other important issues," said Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, head of the World Jewish Affairs and Interreligious Affairs Department at the Foreign Ministry. Informal proposals were exchanged on the tax dispute that would now be studied by working committees, Ben-Shmuel said. The Vatican first established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1993. Negotiations on the tax issue started more than a decade ago but were never resolved. At the core of the dispute are hundreds of millions of shekels in overdue property tax that Jerusalem municipal officials say the Vatican and an array of other churches owe the city. Under Israeli law, properties that are used as houses of prayer are exempted from property tax. But the churches, which owe vast amount of properties in Jerusalem, are required to pay the municipal property tax for buildings they own that are not used for worship, including hostels, guest houses, and schools. The total unpaid property tax amounts to roughly NIS 300 million, with the Latin Patriarchate the biggest offender, a municipal spokesman said. Collection of the debt has been frozen pending the negotiations between the state and the Vatican. The Vatican is said to be willing to pay only a symbolic fee for the city services it receives. Any agreement between the Prime Minister's Office and the Vatican would apply to all the church properties in Jerusalem. A secondary issue has to do with the legal structure of Church authority in the Holy Land, which has been agreed upon but never confirmed by the Knesset, while an additional sore point are intermittent restrictions on Arab clergy traveling from the West Bank that Israel imposes for security reasons. The next high-level meeting between the sides will take place in December in Israel.