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A Historic Agreement

by Archbishop Renato R. Martino, J.C.D.

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In Jerusalem, on 30 December 1993, a “Fundamental Agreement Between the Holy See and the state of Israel” was signed by Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, the Holy See’s under-secretary for relations with states, and his counterpart, Yossi Beilin, Israel’s deputy minister of foreign affairs.

The 15-article agreement (see excerpts below) is the first milestone in a process that began 29 July 1992, with the formation of a bilateral permanent working commission to study and define together issues of common interest in view of normalizing relations between the Holy See and the state of Israel.

Initially, the carefully chosen term “normalizing” was understood differently by the two negotiating partners. Apparently, for Israel, normalization of relations referred first and foremost to the establishment of full, formal diplomatic relations. And this was perceived as the ultimate repudiation of Christian anti-Semitism.

For the Holy See normalization primarily refers to regularizing, in an appropriate legal way, the status of the Catholic Church in the state of Israel. Full diplomatic relations are seen as the final and culminating stage.

At stake was a challenge of mutual understanding. Was the agreement to be about relations between two sovereign entities, two religions or a mixture of both?

Since Jews perceive themselves as both a religion and an ethnic group – a nation – religious dialogue and reconciliation with Christians involve recognizing and accepting the Jewish state.

On the other hand, Catholics, with an understanding of the separation of church and state, distinguish between religious relations between Christians and Jews and diplomatic relations concerned with political matters.

The patient and persevering process of dialogue did bear fruit in this “first and fundamental agreement,” which describes itself as providing “a sound and lasting basis for the continued development of …relations and for the furtherance of the commission’s task.”

The articles of the agreement, after affirming freedom of religion and conscience and repudiating anti-Semitism and discrimination, outline the rights of the church to carry out its religious, moral, educational and charitable functions. The elaboration of the complex and perhaps thorny details of many of these matters, including property and economic matters, will be the subject of continued negotiations, after receiving reports from one or more joint subcommissions of experts.

Lastly the agreement calls for the exchange of diplomatic envoys.

Some observers were surprised at the speed with which the bilateral permanent working commission was able to arrive at a “Fundamental Agreement.” Its roots, it should be noted, can be traced to Vatican II in its “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” or as it is commonly called, “Nostra Aetate.”

To the credit of the council’s fathers, they foresaw a time when ancient differences, even animosities, would be susceptible to reconciliation through evolving dialogue. People of good will, in genuine and open discussion of differences, would be able to agree on shared values, which they could proclaim together.

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Tags: Jerusalem Israel Unity Holy See Jewish-Catholic relations