It took more than 45 years for the Holy See to grant Israel the status it gave to other nations. But given the complex history of the Jews and Christians, when it did – after some 18 months of negotiations - it was a significant turning point and a major diplomatic breakthrough.
Ratified at the Vatican by Israel’s deputy foreign minister Yossi Beilin and Monsignor Claudio Celli, the accord acknowledged the full freedom of worship for the thousands of Christians in Israel and ensured that they would have free access to the holy Christian sites of Jerusalem.
Also included were commitments on antisemitism and religious intolerance, and steps were put in place to exchange ambassadors in the coming months.
The Chief Rabbi of Britain, the now-Lord Sacks, called it “a new chapter of hope for what has been, for too long, a troubled and tragic history.” Dr Beilin said: “It is a very big change after…perhaps 2,000 years of separation between Jews and Christians.”
For many it was a sign of a gradual rapprochement between the Jewish world and the Roman Catholic one. This process had started in 1965 when the Second Vatican Council released a statement absolving the Jews of deicide, but recognition of Israel remained a key obstacle.
The relationship between Catholicism in Judaism is still fraught in places. Questions remain as to the extent of Vatican knowledge of what the Nazis were doing to Jews during the Holocaust, and why the Vatican never unequivocally condemned what was happening.
The proposed beatification of controversial wartime Pope Pius XI has caused tension, while in 2005the appointment of Pope Benedict, once a part of the Hitler Youth, raised eyebrows. Likewise, there was outcry over the pope’s re-admittance of four excommunicated bishops, including Holocaust-denier Bishop Richard Williamson.
Nevertheless, the move in December 1993 was certainly, as the JC headline read, an “historic pact”.
What the JC said: Seen in its historical perspective, yesterday’s signing of an agreement of mutual recognition between the Vatican and Israel, with the declared intention of exchanging ambassadors in the near future, is a revolutionary development…For Jews, the significance is in the implicit acknowledgement and rectification of a long, historical and theological distortion.
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