There have been a series of significant and highly publicised events recently in Vatican-Jewish relations.
Pope Benedict put his predecessor Pius XII along the road to Roman Catholic sainthood last month, angering many Jews who accused the wartime pope of turning a blind eye to the Nazi Holocaust. Benedict defended the move this week during his first visit to Rome’s synagogue, which prompted Israel to ask the pope to open up the Vatican archives covering Pius’ reign between 1939-1958.
But behind the scenes, out of the spotlight, the Catholic church and Jewish state have restarted efforts to put to rest a property dispute in the Holy Land that goes back much further than World War Two or Israel’s founding in 1948. Churches acquired large amounts of land around Jerusalem as the Ottoman empire went into decline from the early 19th century. Today, many official Israeli buildings sit on leased church land. But agreement on the legal status of these properties has evaded governments and popes for decades.
After Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office early last year, his Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was made pointman in a push to settle the decades-old debate. Ayalon was at the Vatican last month to try to narrow divides over six religious sites, including what is believed by Christians to be the Cenacle of the Last Supper, whose future status remains uncertain. Negotiating teams held a meeting again this month, which ended with the vague statement that they “did useful work in atmosphere of cordaility” and that they would meet again. Ayalon heads to the Vatican again in May.