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Last Updated: Friday, 29 July 2005, 14:45 GMT 15:45 UK
Taut times for Israel and Vatican
By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News website

Pope Benedict XVI
The Pope has yet to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in public
Harsh words have been exchanged between the Vatican and Israel as a diplomatic row bubbles between the Jewish state and the Catholic Church, threatening to unbalance a delicate relationship.

But the row began with words left unsaid.

In condemning recent terror strikes on Sunday, the newly-elected Pope, Benedict XVI, did not mention Israel in a list of countries touched by terror.

Israeli diplomats were quick to express their outrage, summoning the Vatican's ambassador to Jerusalem for an explanation.

In turn, the Vatican issued an unusually harsh statement, defending its right to express its own opinions and accusing Israel of sometimes violating international law.

Relations risk

"It is not always possible to immediately follow every attack against Israel with a public statement of condemnation," the Vatican said.

The Pope's omission of this incident cries out to the heavens
Israeli foreign ministry

"Israeli reactions [were] not always compatible with the rules of international law."

Israel's angered foreign ministry said the pontiff's speech could be interpreted as "granting legitimacy to... terrorist attacks against Jews".

The country seems worried that this very public row may signal a change in the Vatican's stance towards Israel and that ever-improving relations between the two may be at risk.

"If the Catholic world becomes antagonistic to Israel, this becomes something that is a problem for the Jewish faith and something Israeli diplomats would be very loath to see happen," Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report, told the BBC News website.

Balancing act

Vatican diplomats have been seeking to play down the disagreement and calm troubled waters.

"I do not believe the Pope purposefully forgot Israel," Father Lacunza Balda, director of the Pontifical Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, in Rome, told the BBC News website.

"To seek a controversy, to see a hardening of position is the wrong path."

Israel and the Vatican established full diplomatic ties in 1994 after the Oslo Accords.

It marked a key point in a process that began three decades earlier - at the Second Vatican Council, convened in 1962.

Since then, events such as the 1967 war, when Israel took possession of Bethlehem - sacred to Christians as the birthplace of Jesus - and disagreements over the role of the Church in the Holocaust, have ensured that tensions remain.

Two girls mourn their friends who died in the Netanya bombing
Israel says not mentioning the bombing implied a 'moral stain'

The Vatican has, until now, always been careful to appear to be as even-handed as possible, Mr Susser says.

"When they did condemn attacks against Israel they would also point to Palestinians as a dispossessed people, explaining the terror without condoning it."

That delicate balancing act continues, the Vatican argues, even as terror attacks and violence multiplies around the world.

"At times of terror - it is very difficult to condemn violence on one side and not to condemn the violence that comes on the other," Father Lacunza said.

He added that the Vatican has always condemned violence and all forms of terrorism.

'Opportunity'

But the Israelis do not appear convinced, arguing that not mentioning the Netanya bombing implied a "moral stain" on the country.

"The Pope's omission of this incident cries out to the heavens," the ministry said in a statement.

"We have the right to expect Pope Benedict XVI, who called for 'a dialogue among the three religions that recognise Abraham as their father', to condemn the vicious terrorist attack directed at Jews, just as he condemned other terrorist attacks."

The omission might be read as a wider comment on Israel, Mr Susser says.

"Foreign ministry people are worried by something that could become far more important - legitimacy - and Israel's legitimacy as a state fighting terror," he said.

But far from damaging relations, the Vatican's Father Lacunza argues, the disagreement may actually promote them.

"Before you can have dialogue, you need a row," he said.

"When there is an impasse both sides are called to speak - nothing can be swept under the carpet, there is a desire to find solutions."

Israel's foreign ministry says it always welcomes dialogue but its statement still stands.


SEE ALSO
Vatican welcomes Israeli rabbis
16 Jan 04 |  Europe
Vatican's Mid-East balancing act
23 Mar 00 |  Middle East
Country profile: Vatican
20 Apr 05 |  Country profiles

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