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Thursday, 23 March, 2000, 15:45 GMT
Vatican's Mid-East balancing act

The Pope's visit is fulfilment of a lifelong ambition
By BBC News Online's Martin Asser

Since the rise of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Vatican has performed a delicate diplomatic balancing act to overcome Catholicism's historic enmity towards Judaism while maintaining solidarity with the Arab Christians of the Holy Land.

When Israel came into being as an independent state in 1948, all the Christian communities in the Holy Land condemned the creation of a Jewish state.

A long time coming: Israeli and Vatican flags
The Vatican had its own difficulty recognising Jewish aspirations for statehood, because it still held the Jews responsible for the killing of Jesus Christ.

The first step towards "normalisation" with Israel was the Second Vatican Council convened by Pope John XXIII in 1962, which set out to dismantle this charge, which had been a clarion call for anti-Semitism down the ages.

This marked a sea change in the Vatican's position towards the Jews, and removed the last theological obstacle to recognising Israel.

But the Vatican still kept its distance so as not to prejudice its advocacy of the Palestinians' rights to sovereignty and independence.

From the Israeli point of view there was also unsettled business with the Vatican over Pope Pius XII's role during the Nazi era and in particular in relation to the Holocaust.

Since Judaism and Catholicism began moving towards reconciliation, Israelis have sought an explicit apology for the wartime pope's diplomatic silence over the Nazi slaughter of Jews.

But the Vatican does not accept Pius XII was culpable of assenting to the Holocaust, and - even if it did - it would be impossible to cast blame on a pope whom the current pope has begun moves to beatify.

Palestinian sympathy

The initial support for Arab Christians had by the 1960s broadened to include all Palestinians - in particular the hundreds of thousands of refugees displaced when Israel was created.

The 1967 war made relations more complicated, after Israel captured vast new tracts of land and took possession of Bethlehem - sacred to Christians as the birthplace of Jesus - and east Jerusalem, where Christian tradition locates the Crucifixion.

Vatican does not recognise Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem
The Intifada, the Palestinian uprising which began in 1987, saw a revival of Arab nationalism, as well as a rise in the role of the churches in support for the Palestinian cause.

A year later, the Vatican appointed the first Palestinian patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, who became a prominent spokesman for Christian and Palestinian rights and a thorn in the side of Israelis claiming exclusive sovereignty over Jerusalem.

While Vatican opposition to the Israeli occupation has remained, the signing of the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians finally enabled the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the Jewish state and the Roman Catholic church.

This came in the so-called Fundament Agreement of December 1993, in which the Vatican recognised Israeli sovereignty over its pre-1967 territory in return for Israeli guarantees of the Church's freedom and legal security.

Suspicion all round

Despite a warming of relations between Israel and the Vatican in the 1990s, tensions remain.

Nazareth: New brand of Christian-Muslim tension
One of the sporadic outbreaks of hostility even threatened the current trip, when the Vatican condemned Israel after the government allowed Muslims to build a mosque on land claimed by Christians beside the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

Critics of Israel suspected the row was deliberately engineered to sow seeds of division between Muslims and Christians, which, despite the manifold strains on Palestinian society, had been noticeably absent until then.

Another spat resulted from the Vatican-Palestinian agreement signed in February giving the Catholic Church official status in self-ruled areas, which Israel said interfered with the peace process.

Meanwhile, such episodes have left many Israelis deeply suspicious of the Vatican's professed neutrality in the Arab-Israeli conflict, something the Pope's visit might help to dispel.

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