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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Israel’s Relations with the Vatican

Filed under: Europe and Israel
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 401   13 Adar 5759 / 1 March 1999

Closing a Circle

During the ceremony of the presentation of my credentials as the Ambassador of Israel to the Holy See on April 10, 1997, I told His Holiness that, actually, this was not my first connection with the Vatican. In fact, when I served as Ambassador of Israel to the Republic of Cyprus, in one of the ceremonies there, I was approached by the non-resident Ambassador of Outer Mongolia, who asked me whether I represented the Holy See in Cyprus. Of course I answered that I represented the State of Israel. Then, looking at my head, he remarked: “Oh, you are right, sir; now I can see the difference in the color!” Of course, he was referring to my skullcap.

It seems that here I am closing a personal life circle that started 303 years ago. As a descendant of a rabbi who conducted a theological debate with a Catholic priest 303 years ago–and even wrote an interesting book about it–I find myself today serving as Ambassador of Israel to the Holy See, having as a main duty that of encouraging a true dialogue (and not a debate!) between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church, this in order to try to bridge over a long period of complicated and problematic relations.

My duty as Ambassador of Israel to the Holy See places before me a difficult and complex diplomatic challenge in all its historic, diplomatic, and political dimensions: one that is far removed from the framework and routine of classic, conventional diplomacy.

Furthermore, it must be borne in mind that this is a complex theme, because the actors are singular: the State of Israel–a Jewish state to which the Jewish people are linked emotionally and eternally, and the Holy See–a state, according to international law, with an important diplomatic activity such as prevails among states, but with a specific purpose, different from that of other states. The Holy See constitutes the central government of the Catholic Church and its activity is primarily devoted to the Church. Its intergovernmental relationsfocus on the local Church, as well as on what the Holy See defines as “the great ethical values”: peace, justice, freedom, human rights, solidarity, and the like.

The Israel-Vatican Agreement

On December 30, 1993, the Holy See and Israel signed an accord considered by all to be unique and historic. It was not only a question of an agreement establishing relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel, but also a change in the long, tortuous, and painful relations between two great religions, Catholicism and Judaism.

The agreement is a milestone in the complex and difficult relations between the Church and the Jewish people, relations lasting almost 2000 years, with many pages stained in blood, with persecutions, expulsions, humiliations, and sermons dripping with hatred and causing revulsion.

As Cardinal Ratzinger stated four years ago in Jerusalem, “The history of the relations between Israel and Christianity is saturated with tears and blood.” Still, after the creation of the State of Israel, more than four and a half decades had to elapse before the reservations and hesitations were overcome.

The agreement is, undoubtedly, the finalization of one phase and the beginning of another. Formally, it is an accord between a small state and another smaller one. But it transcends geographic borders. It reverberates to hundreds of millions of Catholics and millions of Jews.

In its preamble it speaks of being “conscious of the special nature of the relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, and of the historic process of reconciliation and development within a framework of mutual understanding and friendship between Catholics and Jews.”

In an interview granted a few years ago to an American journalist, Pope John Paul II analyzed the progress made in resolving the complex relations between Catholics and Jews, declaring that “one must understand that the Jews, who were dispersed throughout the world for two thousand years, had decided to return to the land of their forefathers. They have this right.”

Anyone who visited the Vatican gardens on the evening of December 23, 1997, would have heard voices that had never been heard there before, under any circumstances. On that evening, His Eminence Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy participated in the ceremony of the lighting of the first candle of Hanukkah on behalf of His Holiness Pope John Paul II. The candle that was lit in the presence of Archbishop Jean Louis Tauran, Secretary for the Relations with States of the Secretariat of State, and of other prominent personalities from the Vatican, was also lit to mark the 50th anniversary of the State of Israel.

The Hanukkah songs and the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikva,” reverberated in sharp contrast to the words uttered by Pius X in reply to the founder of the Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, who in 1903 asked him to support the idea of creating a Jewish state. Pius X responded: “The Jews did not recognize our God. Therefore, we cannot recognize any right on their part to the Holy Land.”

The Second Vatican Council

The attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Jews, motivated by deeply rooted theological considerations, began to be modified under the influence of Pope John XXIII, who instilled a new orientation in one of the first acts of his papacy. He ordered the expression “perfidious Jews” to be deleted from the prayers of Good Friday. The Second Vatican Council, initiated by Pope John XXIII and completed under the papacy of Paul VI, approved in 1965 the Nostra Aetate Declaration which affirmed that “Jews were most dear to God and that a great spiritual patrimony was shared by Christians and Jews.”

Nostra Aetate delegitimized the deicide accusation and rejected the doctrine that there is a collective indictment against the Jews because of Christ’s crucifixion. Hatred toward the Jews is judged to be incompatible with the doctrine of the Church.

The Nostra Aetate Declaration is an important milestone, a breakthrough in the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. The adoption of the new doctrine paved the way to a constructive dialogue which gradually led to a better mutual understanding and to a change of attitude.

The Path to Diplomatic Recognition

More than twenty-eight years had to go by before the signing of the agreement which led to the establishment of full diplomatic relations. One could have assumed that the Holy See would view the creation of the state as an opportunity to make amends for the injustice suffered by the Jews for generations. This, however, did not happen. On the contrary, the attitude of the Holy See toward Israel was, from the very beginning, negative and even hostile. Some people raise, first and foremost, considerations of a theological nature.

Still, Vatican diplomacy is not motivated by theological factors alone. It is conditioned by both religious and political considerations. The Holy See, because of its desire to reestablish its influence in the Holy Land and over the Holy Places, supported in 1947 the internationalization of Jerusalem. From the very moment the State of Israel was created and Jerusalem declared its capital, relations between the Holy See and Israel have been complex and conflictive.

There were various reasons for the negative attitude of the Holy See toward establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. Perhaps one of the main reasons was the wish not to antagonize the Arab world. This is why the Holy See maintained a generally pro-Arab posture.

On January 21, 1991, the Holy See deemed it necessary to explain that it had never questioned the existence of the State of Israel, that it recognized it implicitly, and that the question as to whether or not to establish diplomatic relations was a separate one which depended on a series of circumstances and assessments.

Vatican diplomats also explained that in several other cases, many years had elapsed before the establishment of diplomatic relations by the Holy See with other states (for example, the United States, Mexico, Poland, and even Italy).

There were, however, some in the Holy See who held the opinion that the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel would be interpreted by the Arabs as support for one side and would thus, according to Vatican diplomacy, “prevent the Holy See from working towards peace with the authority deriving from its position of being above the parties involved in the conflict.”

The absence of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel constituted a serious obstacle in the dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, as well as to the improvement of the relationship.

In the meantime, important gestures were made by the Catholic Church, most particularly the visit by Pope John Paul II to the Great Synagogue in Rome in April 1986–the first visit made by a Pope to a synagogue. There he declared, “you are our brothers and, in a certain way, our dearly beloved older brothers.” It was the first time any Pope had made such a gesture of fraternity. The distance separating Vatican City from the Great Synagogue in Rome is a few hundreds meters, but many centuries had to go by before it was crossed.

There were other gestures: important declarations, such as that made by the Pope in 1980 when he stated that “the Jewish people, after the tragic experiences linked to the slaughter of many of its sons and daughters, motivated by a desire for security, established the State of Israel.” In 1984, the Pope demanded for the Jewish people in Israel “the desired security and tranquillity that are the prerogative of every nation, as well as required conditions for the life and progress of every society.” In 1987 he declared that “the Jews have a right to nationhood, as do all other peoples, according to international law.”

The Madrid Conference: A Turning Point

The definitive turning point in the attitude of the Holy See came about as an outcome of the dramatic changes in the international order resulting from the breakdown of Communism, the Gulf War, and, above all, the Madrid Conference which set in motion the peace process between Arabs and Israelis.

This brought about a new situation that underlined the profound change of attitude towards Israel on the part of the Holy See. The changes of a political nature, the process which brought Arabs and Israelis to the negotiating table, created a climate of dialogue and simplified matters for the Holy See, which did not wish to be left out of the ongoing peace process. “If the Palestinians can sit down formally with the Israelis,” said a Vatican diplomat, “why can we not do it?” In addition, fears for the safety of Catholic minorities in the area have apparently dissipated.

On July 29, 1992, the State of Israel and the Holy See agreed to set up a joint working commission to discuss bilateral topics of mutual interest with a view to normalizing relations. The commission was to deal with matters such as relations between the State of Israel and the Church, and cooperation in the fight against racism and anti-Semitism. Intensive negotiations continued until December 29, 1993. The following day the Fundamental Agreement was signed in Jerusalem.

The agreement was received–as is well known–with tremendous enthusiasm. Media headlines proclaimed: “a historic event,” “an unprecedented agreement,” “Wojtyla blesses Israel,” “sacred encounter in Jerusalem.” Experts and commentators agreed that a new era had opened up, not only in Israel-Holy See relations, but also in relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, with the creation of this new and important channel of communication.

The important spiritual message transmitted by the agreement was not perceived by all. There were negative reactions on the part of certain Jewish sectors in Israel and among important Palestinian groups which considered it untimely. Moreover, we may never know what was said during an important high-level consultation at the Holy See on the eve of the signing when, according to some Italian press reports, serious doubts and reservations were expressed.

The Significance of the Agreement

Relations between Israel and the Holy See involve three spheres:

Political relations between Israel and the Holy See, considered as two political entities.

Relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church. The recent document about the “Shoah” issued by the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews relates to this sphere.

Relations between the State of Israel and the Church in Israel.

In this latter sphere, the Fundamental Agreement referred to honoring the Church’s rights in Israel, in accordance with the existing situation and the laws of the state: freedom of religion, freedom of worship, freedom of access to the Holy Places, and the preservation of the status quo in the Holy Places. It was agreed that on two issues–the legal status of the Church and its institutions in Israel, as well as economic and fiscal matters–negotiations would continue.

After long and extensive negotiations, the Legal Agreement was concluded on November 10, 1997, and the process of its ratification is about to be completed. The purpose of the agreement is to regularize the status and legal personality of the Catholic Church and its institutions in Israel, after about 500 years of undefined legal status under the Ottoman empire, the British Mandate, and Israeli rule.

The Catholic Church and many Church institutions will be accorded legal status under Israeli law. The institutions will be included in an official state registry, and their interaction in Israel with non-Church bodies will be subject to Israeli law, including litigation in Israeli law courts. On the other hand, Church institutions will maintain full internal autonomy in the administration of their affairs–including internal conflicts–which will be adjudicated by the Church in accordance with canon law. The negotiations on economic and fiscal matters will begin following the ratification of the Legal Agreement.

The Catholic Church and the Jewish People

The Fundamental Agreement contains no provisions on relations between Christians and Jews. Nevertheless, it does not ignore the problematic historical backdrop to these relations, as referred to in the preamble which speaks of the “nature of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people” and of the historic process of reconciliation between the two.

One of the most important points in this context is Article 2, which refers to cooperation in the fight against anti-Semitism. From the Israeli point of view, in light of the history of Catholic-Jewish relations, the shared aspiration to combat “all forms of anti-Semitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance” is one of the most significant achievements of the agreement.

Indeed, Article 2 adopts a clear and decisive position against anti-Semitism. The Holy See’s commitment is expressed explicitly in the reiteration of its condemnation of the hatred, persecution, and other manifestations of anti-Semitism perpetrated against the Jewish people and individual Jews anywhere. Here, too, the Fundamental Agreement goes beyond purely bilateral, legal, and political aspects. “Never again anti-Semitism, never again genocide,” declared John Paul II at the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, where the Nazis murdered almost 1.5 million Jews. In his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Pope employs very harsh terms:

Then came World War II, with the concentration camps and the planned extermination. First it was precisely the Jewish people who suffered this, solely because they were Jews. Anyone living in Poland at that time had contact with that reality, even if only indirectly….This was therefore my own experience, too; an experience that I carry within me to this day….Auschwitz, perhaps the most eloquent symbol of the Holocaust of the Jewish people, shows how far a system built on premises of racial hatred or a passion to dominate can lead a nation. Auschwitz continues to sound its warning to this day, reminding us that anti-Semitism is a grave sin against humanity; that every racial hatred inevitably leads to the infringement of human dignity.

There is no doubt that the Shoah still stands at the center of the Jewish people’s agenda and should continue to stand at the center of the international community’s agenda, especially in an effort to uproot any possibility of its repetition in the future. It is important to be aware of the sensitivity of the Jewish people: the wounds and scars of the Shoah are still fresh and painful in its body. This is an issue that we still have to continue to cope with. Indeed, in his letter dated March 12, 1998, to Cardinal Cassidy about the recent document on the Shoah, the Pope writes that the crime which has become known as the Shoah remains an indelible stain on the history of the century that is coming to a close.

The various references of His Holiness to the Shoah and his moving expression of deep sympathy with the fate of the victims, reflect a commitment to fight all forms of dehumanization.

In one of His Holiness’ meetings with representatives of the Polish Jewish community in Warsaw in 1991, the Pope said: “every person perceives events through his experience.” This brings to mind a verse of one of the Israeli national poets, Saul Tchernichowsky, according to which every person is a reflection of his childhood. Therefore, I was deeply moved when, reading the book of G. Svidercoski, Letter to a Jewish Friend, I learned about the wonderful friendship between Karol Wojtyla (Lolek; now Pope John Paul II) and his Jewish classmate Jerzy Kluger (Jurek). The friendship between Lolek and Jurek may be seen as a symbol of the tragedy of the Shoah, along with the hope for a better world in which there is no temptation to fall back again into acts of racism, discrimination, and hatred.

Promoting Future Cooperation

In Article 7 of the Fundamental Agreement, Israel and the Holy See recognize their shared interest in promoting and encouraging cultural exchanges between their institutions throughout the world and Israeli educational, cultural, and research institutions. This is a mutual commitment of great significance from Israel’s perspective.

The Catholic-Jewish cultural dialogue opens new horizons in mutual recognition that can certainly contribute to greater understanding on both sides. The agreement with the Holy See will allow Israel an active role in the search for this greater understanding.

In a speech to the members of an American Jewish Committee delegation on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Nostra Aetate and the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, John Paul II insisted on an urgent need to continue building on the foundation already laid. He said that one of the greatest challenges facing us all is in the sphere of education and information, where, ultimately, the results of our cooperation must be put into practice.

This cooperation is perhaps one of the great challenges that Vatican and Israeli diplomats have to take up. Certainly the relations between Catholics and Jews have improved considerably in recent years, and ignorance, prejudices, and stereotypes are being replaced by growing understanding and mutual respect, as the Pope said.

With all our appreciation of the dramatic decisions and events since Nostra Aetate, and especially our admiration of the tremendous contribution and inspiration of Pope John Paul II, who is undoubtedly the right person in the right place at the right time, we must put the emphasis on one important word: education. We must ensure that all those important decisions will enrich and guide all Catholic believers throughout the world and, of course, we shall have to ensure the implementation of this principle also within the Jewish world.

 The Future of Jerusalem

The significance of Jerusalem for Jews, Christians, and Muslims is well known. Unfortunately, however, on the political and international level, instead of being a symbol of peace and sanctity, Jerusalem has become the focus of conflicting aspirations.

For the Israeli perspective, let me simply quote scholar Zvi Werblowsky’s work, The Meaning of Jerusalem to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Israel Information Center, 1994): “For the Jewish people…Jerusalem is not a city containing holy places or commemorating holy events. The city as such is holy and has, for at least two and a half millennia, served as the symbol of the historic existence of a people hunted, humiliated, massacred, but never despairing of the promise of its ultimate restoration. Jerusalem and Zion have…become ‘the local habitation and the name’ for the hope and meaning of Jewish existence.”

Jerusalem is a united city that is holy to the three monotheistic religions. There are no limits to human resources of inventiveness in finding solutions to preserve the city as unified and at the same time ensuring full religious freedom in the administration of its holy sites and enabling access to them for the believers of all creeds. The city, which has always been a symbol of coexistence and peace, should be given the chance of continuing to serve all human beings as a source of inspiration and spirituality.

His Holiness Pope John Paul II has called upon believers to undertake a pilgrimage to Rome and to the Holy Land to commemorate the Jubilee of the year 2000. The government of Israel will do its utmost to ensure the accomplishment of His Holiness’ spiritual appeal. His Holiness also has an open invitation by Israeli leaders to go on a pilgrimage to Israel. Whenever he decides to make such a visit, he will be received with open arms.

A Starting Point

The establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Holy See is not to be considered as a point of arrival, but rather as a starting point. We are climbing up a mountain together and, from time to time, we reach important and substantial milestones towards the mountain’s peak.

In closing, let me share with you a very significant event which I cherish close to my heart. At the beginning of my mission as Ambassador to the Holy See, I received a fax from an Israeli Christian Arab who requested my help in asking the Pope to baptize his son. He and his wife were especially keen in seeing their wish fulfilled because, sadly, they had experienced the tragic loss of their first son.

Knowing that there are “only” 989 million Catholics all over the world, I feared we might have some difficulties in fulfilling such a request. Nevertheless, I contacted the proper authorities in the Vatican and emphasized that during the presentation of my credentials I had assured the Pope that I am representing all Israeli citizens–Moslems, Christians, and Jews alike–and therefore it was my duty to submit this request on behalf of a Christian citizen of Israel.

I was very pleased, a few weeks later, to receive a positive answer. Indeed, the Pope agreed to conduct the ceremony in his private chapel. I will never forget the smile on the face of the boy’s parents after their dream came true.

A verse from the Prophet Isaiah (57:19) epitomizes the nature of the relationship between the Jewish people, in Israel and in the diaspora, and the Holy See: “‘Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near,’ said the Lord, ‘and I will heal him.'”

– Aharon Lopez has been Ambassador of Israel to the Vatican since 1997. A career diplomat in Israel’s Foreign Service, he served previously as Ambassador of Israel in Cyprus, as well as in diplomatic posts in Burma, Finland, and Australia. This Jerusalem Letter is based on his address to the Association Italy-Israel of Turin, Italy, in December 1998.