A dispute over the allocation of visas to Catholic Church personnel in Israel threatens to harm relations between the Vatican and the Jewish state.
The Israeli Ministry of Interior refused entry visas to at least two priests from Africa expected at a biblical study center in Jerusalem, according to a report Saturday in Asia News.
Meanwhile, two-year visa renewal applications were denied to several European priests who have worked and lived in Israel for many years. Instead, they were offered one-year visas, even though Israel has been their home for many years and they are very well known.
“There are difficulties which we'll try to overcome, Archbishop Antonio Franco told the Italian bishops’ news agency, SIR, on Monday. “Once visas were issued for two years, for European people, too, but now they are issued for just one year,” he explained, adding that these restrictions might hinder the ordinary pastoral work of the church.
Franco, the apostolic nuncio to Israel and papal delegate for Jerusalem and Palestine, stressed that the issue is separate from a long-running dispute between the Vatican and Israel over the Jewish state’s inability to fulfil the terms of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement, a bilateral treaty that established diplomatic relations between the two. Israel has yet to recognize the Catholic Church’s fiscal status within the Jewish state under the terms of the treaty.
Speculation has focused on whether these visa restrictions are a consequence of the Jewish fundamentalist party's forming part of Israel’s ruling coalition. The party, Shas, also is known as the "Sephardi Torah Guardians."
“We must wonder why these restrictions are imposed, and what one can do to go back to earlier practice, which was more open,” Archbishop Franco said.
The Franciscan Custos to the Holy Land, the Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, told SIR the problems over visa restrictions “date back to the period before Shas, even though with Shas they became clearer." It is “an old problem,” said Pizzaballa, who pointed out that a few visas have been issued, while others have not, or “simply people keep waiting for them.”
It is not known whether the situation depends on a ministerial policy or on the bureaucracy of some officers, he said, but the problems make it “very difficult for churches to schedule their work if they are not sure whether religious or priests will arrive or not. We are living in uncertainty; bureaucracy has become more complicated."
Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, Mordechay Lewy, told Newsmax he was unaware of the case of the two African clergy and is requesting more information from the ministry. But he stressed that the Catholic Church “is in a much better position than others," with the exception of Catholic clergy coming from countries that are hostile to Israel.
The recent problems “have nothing to do” with having Jewish fundamentalist parties in government, Lewy said, adding that the Israeli government is concerned mostly about Orthodox and Eastern rite clergy from countries such as Syria and Iraq.
He gave as an example Hilarion Capucci, the retired Melkite Greek Catholic archbishop of Cesarea, who is notorious for his outspoken support for Iran and opposition to Israel. The Israeli authorities also are known to be concerned that countries such as Syria insist that the Orthodox Church send clergy from its own territory to Israel rather than personnel from the church’s diaspora in Europe or the United States.
In visa cases such as this, Catholic Church officials rely on Article 3, Paragraph 2 of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement, in which the Israel recognizes the right of the church to "deploy" its own personnel to Israel.
The Rev. David Jaeger, a Franciscan friar of the Custody to the Holy Land, who also is an expert on church-state relations in Israel, was unable to comment the case. However, he said: “I am sure that all can be resolved through reference to the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the state of Israel, which is the controlling norm for relations between the Catholic Church and the state, in Israel.”
The relevant article in the Fundamental Agreement, he said, “establishes the principles for reconciling the rights of the church in this matter and the rights of the state. Probably a further, detailed accord on the application of these principles to this matter would be extremely helpful, but the controlling principles are already all there for a peaceful and mutually friendly resolution."
The news of Catholic clergy visa problems will come as a disappointment to many in the church who had hoped that Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel this year would have helped improve relations between the Holy See and the Jewish state.
However, there are positive signs regarding talks over the Fundamental Agreement: Sources close to the negotiations say they have proceeded with "great cordiality" and "comity and good will." The most recent meeting took place on Oct. 29, and another round of talks is to take place this month. A plenary assembly is scheduled for Dec. 10.
“The work is going on,” Archbishop Franco said, adding, "The atmosphere is that of a difficult work."
One informed source told Newsmax that more frequent meetings are needed to resolve the issue.
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