Anniversaries are hard to celebrate when you're preoccupied with a terrorist war. Burying your dead, fielding advice from so-called friends who urge you to show restraint under attack, and responding to international bodies that regard a fence as more threatening than a bomb wrapped in nails dipped in rat poison-- all these tend to put a damper on the festivities. More than one commentator noted that Israel's recent anniversaries were less celebratory than they would've been under more peaceful circumstances.
One anniversary that came and went without much fanfare was the tenth anniversary of "The Fundamental Agreement," the accord signed by the Vatican and Israel in December of 1993, normalizing relations between the Holy See and the Jewish state. There was a brief mention of the Fundamental Agreement when European and American Bishops met in Jerusalem recently to show "solidarity with the Church in the Holy Land." The resulting public statement harshly criticized Israel's anti-terrorism fence and other restrictions on movement, calling the security measures "especially regrettable given that the State of Israel and the Holy See have just marked ten years since the signing of their Fundamental Agreement."
Archbishop Pietro Sambi went further, claiming the fence violated the Fundamental Agreement. Both the innuendo and the accusation are false. A closer look, however, does reveal a violation of the Vatican - Israel accord, but not by Israel. The European and American Bishops' public statement stops short of a specific charge (e.g., "Israel is violating the spirit/letter of the Fundamental Agreement") while making it clear that Israel's actions are not, in the Bishops' view, consistent with the 1993 accord. But what the Bishops would only allude to in their statement, Archbishop Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the Holy Land, later stated explicitly.
The Fundamental Agreement is a five-page, fifteen-article document stating that both Israel and the Holy See have an interest in strengthening their relationship, as well as creating a framework for working out future disagreements. Both parties affirm their commitment to human rights and freedom of religion and conscience. In addition, Israel and the Holy See state their commitment to "combating all forms of antisemitism and all kinds of racism and of religious intolerance."
Note that anti-Semitism is spelled "antisemitism," a spelling that leaves no room for revisionist lexicography wherein the term can be reinterpreted to include Arabs as well as Jews. This spelling, along with the separate injunction against racism, leaves no doubt that violence and hatred of Jews is specifically being discussed here. The Holy See also reiterates its "condemnation of hatred, persecution and all other manifestations of antisemitism directed against the Jewish people and individual Jews anywhere, at any time and by anyone [italics added]."
Article 3, section 2 states that Israel "recognizes the right of the Catholic Church to carry out its religious, moral, educational and charitable functions.and to train, appoint and deploy its own personnel in [its own] institutions for the said functions to these ends." Archbishop Sambi stated Israel is contravening this section of the Fundamental Agreement with the anti-terrorism fence. This also correlates closely to the complaints by American and European Bishops that security measures are hindering the basic functions of the Church in the Holy Land.
However, the next sentence is essential to understanding the previous one. It states that the Catholic Church "recognizes the right of the State to carry out its functions, such as promoting and protecting the safety and welfare of the people [italics added]." In other words, the Catholic Church can go about her spiritual and pastoral duties, but she might be inconvenienced (like everyone else) when the Jewish State attempts to protect its citizens from being picked off by snipers or blown up by suicide bombers.
Imagine if the U.S. army could have prevented suicide bombers from blowing up United Nations workers in Iraq, but in doing so hindered the travel, work, worship, or migration of ordinary Iraqi citizens; would anyone, including the Catholic Bishops, have criticized their actions? So instead of a pastoral statement for Christians in the Holy Land the Bishops issued a pro-Palestinian broadside, which used the Fundamental Agreement as a prop, without actually quoting from that agreement. The real violation is to be found in article 11, section 2, which reads:
"The Holy See, while maintaining in every case the right to exercise its moral and spiritual teaching-office, deems it opportune to recall that, owing to its own character, it is solemnly committed to remaining a stranger to all merely temporal conflicts, which principle applies specifically to disputed territories and unsettled borders."
It is refreshing to hear the so-called "occupied lands" referred to as disputed territories. But the Bishops refer to the anti-terrorism fence as a "land grab" and speak of it cutting through "Palestinian land." Does this sound like a solemn commitment to "remaining a stranger" to conflicts concerning "unsettled borders"?
Given that the Bishop Wilton Gregory (president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), various European Bishops, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, and Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah all represent the Roman Catholic Church - and surely did so when they officially met in Jerusalem - would not some reference to Article 11, section 2 be in order? Are they not duty-bound to reflect in their official statements the neutrality promised in Article 11 of the Fundamental Agreement?
Later, during a heated exchange, Latin-rite Patriarch Michel Sabbah told Israeli President Moshe Katsav that the security fence is not necessary because the occupation causes terrorism. It cannot be stated too often that Arab pogroms against Jews, massacres of Jewish civilians, and even terrorism predate the 1967 war, and therefore predate the "occupation."
It is not Israel, but rather Catholic Bishops, here and in the Holy Land, that are violating the ten-year-old Fundamental Agreement. Whether the Vatican will call them on it remains to be seen.
Don Kenner is Director of Catholic Friends of Israel www.catholicfriendsofisrael.com