Vatican-Israel negotiations on holy sites appear to move forward


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Rome, Italy, Dec 14, 2009 / 09:39 pm (CNA).- On December 10, delegations from the Vatican and Israel met in another attempt to resolve legal disputes regarding ownership of more than 100 sites and other issues important to Christian religious residing and working in the middle eastern nation. It appears that there was progress made in the talks, but even that is being debated.

Despite varying reports from Israeli and Vatican sources to news media on the success of the Dec. 10 meetings, officially, progress is being made in the bilateral negotiations. In the official joint communiqué released at its closure, the recent meeting was described as having taken place "in an atmosphere of cordiality and mutual understanding."

Since 1993, the Vatican and the Israel have been at the negotiating table over the issue of property and taxation rights on historically Christian assets within Israeli borders. Included among the contested locations, said Asia News sources, are holy places such as the Shrine of the Annunciation in Nazareth and perhaps the most prized site, the Cenacle, believed to be the chamber where the Last Supper took place.

The difficulty in deciding the future legal status of these sites is that Israel would like to reserve expropriation rights in order to develop infrastructure around, under or even over them. The idea of converting these sites into "roads and sidewalks" has kept the Vatican at the negotiating table.

However, following the Dec. 10 meeting, a report was published in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth, which quoted the head of the Israeli delegation, Danny Ayalon, as having said of the negotiations, "We can definitely say that there is a certain crisis."

Although progress has been quite slow, it is important to note that talks have not come to a stop, explained Vatican legal adviser Father David Maria Jaeger to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. "The material is intrinsically complex." So, Fr. Jaeger said, "you need time and effort and the work can't be rushed."

Responding to questions of stagnancy, Jaeger referred to the communiqué, saying, "it speaks clearly of work that was done in the Plenary session last May, and it speaks equally of more work that is still to be done. This indicates for sure that the meetings are progressing ..."

Both sides have faith that an accord will be reached "as soon as possible," said the priest.

"Too much effort, too much hope is invested in this undertaking for too many years for it not to succeed."

Fr. Jaeger also pointed to the fact that there is a "working level" commission planned between the delegations for Jan. 7, 2010 and another Plenary meeting planned for May 27 as proof that talks have not reached an impasse.