Deputy Foreign Minister Ze’ev Elkin was in Rome for high-level negotiations with Vatican officials over several outstanding land and building issues revolving around properties owned by the Holy See in Israel.
Elkin visited the Holy See to continue decades-long talks on a comprehensive land deal between Israel and the Vatican, Maariv reported Thursday.
Elkin told the Hebrew daily that, after meeting with the Vatican negotiating team and then separately with Pope Francis I, he thought an agreement would be signed by the end of the year, which would pave the way for the new pope’s promised visit to the Holy Land. Elkin’s meetings Wednesday were the first such negotiations in two years.
The two main points of discussion revolved around Vatican requests to build two new centers in Israel.
The Church has long lobbied to build a new church in a section of the Caesaria National Park where a church dedicated to St. Paul once stood. The area is now an archaeological and tourist site. Israel had previously refused the request, but now it seems Jerusalem will approve the construction of a center in the area, as long as the new complex does not have outward Christian religious symbols or resemble in its design a traditional church.
The other main issue is a plot of Vatican-owned land on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, currently used as a parking lot, but desired by the Holy See for a church. Israel won’t allow the land to be used for construction, but has reportedly offered use of an alternative swath of land in the capital.
A structure on Mt. Zion known as the Cenacle, where the Last Supper is believed to have taken place, will become open to Catholic worship once again, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported. The site will be administered by the Franciscan order but ownership will remain with Israel. The structure, also known as the “Upper Room,” rests above what’s believed to be King David’s Tomb, although many archaeologists differ on whether the Jewish king was actually buried there.
La Stampa reported in late May that under the terms of a possible agreement, commercial activities run on church properties such as restaurants or souvenir shops will become subject to Israeli sales tax.
The extensive properties owed by the church will continue to be exempt from paying property tax.
Israel and the Vatican signed an agreement in 1993 dealing with property and tax rights for Roman Catholic Church properties in Israel, which paved the way for the opening of full diplomatic relations between the two states in 1994, but several outstanding issues remained, leading to on-again off-again negotiations over the years.
“The negotiations took place in a thoughtful and constructive atmosphere… significant progress was made and the parties committed themselves to accelerate negotiations on the remaining issues, and look forward to an expedited conclusion in the near term,” a press release jointly issued by Israel and the Vatican said.
During his time in Rome, Elkin is to meet with Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta and Foreign Minister Emma Bonino to discuss issues of concern to both countries. Elkin is scheduled to continue on to Russia next week.