On 3 and 4 June, another meeting will be held in Rome to settle the last two remaining issues: a parking lot on Mount Zion and a place of worship in Caesarea
The Vatican and Israel are close to reaching an agreement on Church property tax regulations and the running of some places of worship. All that remains, according to Israeli sources, is to resolve the issues relating to two properties in Caesarea and Jerusalem. The Cenacle on Mount Zion where, according to Christian tradition, the Last Supper was held, will become a Catholic place of worship once again.
According to the “Protocol Activity” – a permanent protocol between the Holy See and the State of Israel which both sides have agreed on -, it will now be possible to celebrate mass in the Cenacle. The room will be managed by the Franciscan Custody but will remain the property of the State of Israel and will not be handed back to the Franciscans who owned it in the past.
The same sources said an agreement has been reached over the issue of the Church’s exemption from property taxes. The Holy Places, places of worship and Catholic cemeteries will be completely exempt from tax payments, but buildings or parts of buildings that are used for commercial purposes e.g.: souvenir shops, bars and restaurants, will be taxed.
The Vatican and Israeli delegations will meet again in Rome on 3 and 4 June for bilateral technical meetings and a plenary session. Given the difficulty of the whole process and the numerous crises along the way, it is unlikely the meeting in Rome will result in the two sides signing a definitive agreement. Both Israel and the Holy See’s heads of delegations are newbies: Israel will be represented by its Deputy Minister of Foreign affairs, Zeev Elken and the Vatican by the new Under Secretary for Relations with States, Antoine Camilleri.
The two issues which apparently remain unresolved are a parking lot on Mount Zion, where the Cenacle is and a place of worship in Caesarea. While the Custody is claiming ownership of the parking lot, the State of Israel says it cannot change the land’s use as a car parking space, but in exchange, it is offering the Custody a piece of land in different area.
The situation is different with the archaeological site of Caesarea. The Latin Patriarchate had a small church dedicated to St. Paul here (St. Paul left Caesarea to go to Rome). When the State of Israel was created, the Patriarchate was dispossessed of the land and the church was demolished. Now the Holy See would like to have a place of worship in the area. The archaeological site which still contains the remains of an old crusader church is a national park and cannot be touched or an entity granted exclusive use of it. The Vatican and Israel are working together to come up with a solution that would make it possible to grant access to and to worship somewhere within the site without ownership being passed on to the Church. Another alternative would be to allocate a piece of land outside the site, where a pilgrim’s residence could be built.
The negotiations have been long and complex. Official communiqués always make it look like progress has been made and on numerous occasions announcements – particularly Israeli ones – have indicated that the two sides were on the verge of finally reaching an agreement. This time, the finishing line really does seem to be in sight. If it is not reached on 4 June, then perhaps it will be at the next bilateral meeting.