Israel's chief rabbi to meet pope formal ties with Vatican expected to follow

JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- In a century-old stone castle across from the walls of the Old City, a bedroom awaits the visit of the pope, now increasingly likely if peace really banks the fires of the Israeli-Palestinian feud.

Israel's chief rabbi will meet Pope John Paul II in Rome today. This first-ever meeting comes amid reports the Vatican soon will establish formal ties with the 48-year-old modern Jewish state, and the pontiff then will visit the Holy Land.


Room 158 of the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute, an old pilgrims' castle crowned by a huge Virgin Mary and two medieval-style turrets, has been reserved as the "Pope's Quarters" if he visits.

"Of course, we would change the furniture," said Kevork Alemian, an official of Notre Dame. Two Spartan single beds, a fraying couch and some Motel 6 style tables grace the room. While waiting for the pontiff, Room 158 is rented out to lesser pilgrims.


There was no sense keeping the room vacant while waiting for a pope. The last one to visit the area, Pope Paul VI, came 29 years ago. The one before him came in the 3rd century.

'A big headache'

"It would be a very big event," the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, said yesterday of the possibility of a visit by the pope. And, he added almost under his breath, "a big headache."

A headache for both sides. Israel has long sought diplomatic relations with the Vatican and has resented the church for withholding those formal ties. The agreement signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization last week removes a chief obstacle to such ties but may not erase the bitterness.

"It's blasphemy beyond comparison," a former chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Goren, reacted on Israel Radio yesterday. "He [the pope] is mocking us. He still does not recognize us. So why do we want to run after him, to give him publicity?"

Patriarch Sabbah says that the Vatican has long recognized Israel "de facto," but "before diplomatic relations were established there were a few points of discussion that were needed."

Like 2,000 years of enmity between Christians and Jews. Like resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like deciding who controls Jerusalem.

"There has been open hostility by the Vatican against Zionism" since the possibility of a Jewish state arose, said Yitzhak Minerbi, a former Israeli ambassador and author of a book, "The Vatican and Zionism."


"They aren't doing this willingly, or gladly. They are under pressure," he said.

Israel and the Vatican established a joint committee in July 1992 to resolve outstanding disputes. That work is largely done and awaits "a first signature" in the Vatican, according to Patriarch Sabbah.

The visit today by Rabbi Yisrael Lau, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi from Israel, is the first such meeting between the pope and a high-level Israeli religious figure.

Rabbi Lau said yesterday he plans to speak to the pope about "very many delicate things, such as condemning anti-Semitism."

News agency reports from Rome said formal relations leading to full diplomatic ties could follow the meeting, after which the pope is likely to visit Jerusalem.

Observers on both sides say the Vatican has been moving closer to establishing relations with Israel in part to protect its own interests in the holy sites of Jerusalem.


"If Israel and Palestinians are going to hold discussions in the next couple of years about Jerusalem, the Vatican wants to be a part of it," said Bernard Sabella, an expert in Christian affairs at Bethlehem University. "The Vatican is interested in being part of determining the future of Jerusalem."

Interests to protect

The Holy See has a stake in sorting out such matters as ownership and taxation of religious sites. The Roman Catholic Church has extensive landholdings throughout Israel and the West Bank.

The Vatican also has said it wants to ensure religious freedom in Jerusalem.

Israel has vowed to respect all religious sites -- Jewish, Christian and Muslim -- but its closure of the occupied territories since last March has barred Christian and Muslim Palestinians from their holy sites in Jerusalem.

There are about 170,000 Christians in Israel and the occupied territories, less than 4 percent of the population, according to Mr. Sabella. About half of them are Roman Catholic; the remainder are Greek Orthodox, Syrian, Armenian, Coptic, Protestant or members of other denominations.


The Vatican was not pleased to see the emergence of a Jewish state claiming Jerusalem as its capital in 1948 and pushed hard to have the city divided with only the New City under Jewish control.

When Pope Paul VI came in 1964, he arrived from Jordan to visit the Jordanian-controlled side of Jerusalem, which included the Old City and most of the holy sites. He also visited the Israeli side.

Israel occupied all of Jerusalem in the Six-Day War. The Vatican has insisted that the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians be addressed before diplomatic ties with the Holy See can be established.

For the Vatican to consider the recent Israel-PLO agreement a fulfillment of that requirement even before it is put into effect "will be seen by some as a betrayal by the pope," said Adnan Musallam, a professor at the Al-Liqa center for religious studies in Bethlehem.

"At one time, the Vatican was the best friend of the Palestinians," said Mr. Musallam. "Eventually they came to recognize the reality of the world."

About four or five years ago, the Vatican stopped stressing theological obstacles to establishing ties with Jerusalem, said Mr. Minerbi. Israel, for its part, dropped its insistence on getting diplomatic recognition before holding any talks with the Vatican, said Patriarch Sabbah.


Mr. Minerbi said the Vatican feels pressure, chiefly from its U.S. congregation, to establish diplomatic ties with Israel. And he contends the Holy See is eager to bury the reputation of Pope Pius XII, who before and during World War II refused to condemn the Nazi war crimes.

"They want to rehabilitate Pius XII. The only ones who can do that are the Jews," said Mr. Minerbi.

Rabbi Lau may not let that occur easily. He said yesterday he plans to confront the pope with the subject at their meeting today. The rabbi equated Arab violence against Israel to Nazi violence against Jews.

"I think he, in his high position, has to condemn it [Arab violence] and not repeat the behavior of another pope who was sitting there in 1940, 1941, 1942 and said nothing when he saw the bloodshed of innocent people," the rabbi told Israel Radio.