To trust or not to trust — Vatican diplomat vents frustration at Israel

November 21, 2007

Italians have a wonderful phrase they use when things don’t work out as they had hoped: “It was better when it was worse.”

Archbishop Pietro SambiThat was the thrust of controversial comments about the Catholic Church’s relations with Israel by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, currently the Vatican’s nuncio (ambassador) to the United States and formerly the papal envoy to the Jewish state.

Sambi, who was nuncio in Israel from 1998-2005, could not have been clearer about his discontent: “If I must be frank, relations between the Catholic Church and the state of Israel were better when there were no diplomatic relations.” That was the opening salvo in a long interview in Italian with www. terrasanta.net, an on-line publication of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land.

After decades of work, Israel and the Vatican reached a fundamental accord in 1993 and established full diplomatic relations, the next year. But even when the long-awaited historic ties were forged, complex legal and financial issues about the status of the Catholic Church and its properties in Israel were left hanging on a promise and a prayer to sort them out as soon as possible afterwards.

Sambi indicated that the Vatican should have looked harder before it leaped: “The Holy See decided to establish diplomatic relations with Israel as an act of trust, leaving to promises the commitments to later on regularise concrete aspects of the life of the Catholic communities and the Church (in Israel).

Juridical questions were ironed out in a 1997 agreement but work on financial and tax questions as well as issues of visas for foreign priests are still dragging on.

In words that were unusually blunt for a diplomat, Sambi said: “You can’t buy trust at the marketplace, it has to be consolidated with respect for accords that have been signed and fidelity to to one’s word.” In another section of the interview he lamented postponements of meetings by the Israeli delegation, the delegation’s lack of power to negotiate and what he called an absence of political will in Israel.

The whopper was perhaps this one: “The kind of trust one can place in Israel’s promises is there for everyone to see!

Perhaps Sambi was so unguarded in venting his frustrations because the interview was given to what is a rather internal publication of the Franciscans. Perhaps he never expected it to spill over into the mainstream media.

But it was noticed.

The Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, Oded Ben-Hur, told Catholic News Service he was surprised by the comments, “especially coming from our good friend, Archbishop Sambi.

The Vatican put out a statement (here in Italian ) saying Sambi’s words reflected his “thought and personal experience” and that the Holy See hoped for a “rapid conclusion to the important negotiations already in progress.” While some saw this as the Vatican distancing itself from Sambi, a more careful reading would perhaps be that the Vatican fully supported and appreciated what Sambi had said and done. After all, few Vatican diplomats have more personal experience in relations with Israel than Sambi.

The delegations are next due to meet December 12-13. Diplomats here are wondering whether Sambi spoke so bluntly on purpose, to push things forward. Do you think relations will be helped or hindered by these comments?

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