Vatican City, Dec 3, 2013 / 02:06 am
During an audience with Pope Francis, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, invited the Roman Pontiff to visit Israel, though the date of the visit has yet to be determined.
The private audience, which lasted nearly half an hour, was held during Netanyahu's two-day visit to Italy meant to improve relations between the two countries and to sign commercial agreements.
According to the Holy See press office, Pope Francis and Netanyahu's conversation was focused on "the complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, expressing hope that a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible."
"Aside from indicating the Holy Father's plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, various questions were considered regarding the relations between the state authorities and the local Catholic communities, as well as between the State of Israel and the Holy See, in the hope that the agreement which has been in preparation for some time may be concluded forthwith."
The agreement deals with a tax dispute between Israel and the Vatican, clarifying fiscal and property issues related to the Church which stem from policies established under the period of the U.K.'s administration of Palestine, which lasted from 1920 until Israel's establishment in 1948.
The Church's property in Israel enjoyed privileged legal and tax status under the British Mandate, and in 2003 the two states signed a treaty meant to resolve the issues, but it has yet to be ratified by the Knesset, Israel's legislature. The treaty also established diplomatic relations between the two states.
In 2009, a bilateral working commission was established to resolve the economic issues, and will next meet in January, 2014. Zion Evrony, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican, said Nov. 5 that he is optimistic about a quick agreement between the countries.
During the audience, Netanyahu confirmed his invitation to Pope Francis to visit the Holy Land next spring, and his wife Sarah added that "we look forward to it."
According to Israeli media, the visit should take place May 25-26, 2014. The last papal visit to Israel was Benedict XVI's in 2009; that was preceded by Bl. John Paul II in 2000, and Paul VI in 1964.
Pope Francis and Netanyahu exchanged gifts at their meeting; the prime minister gave the Pope a copy of "The origins of the inquisition in fifteenth century Spain," a book written by his father, Benzion Netanyahu. According to a journalist embedded in the Israeli delegation, the book asserts that Catholics did not offend the Jews during the inquisition.
Netanyahu also gave Pope Francis a silver tray decorated with a menorah, as well as a pitcher with which to pour oil.
Pope Francis in turn gave Netanyahu a bronze panel representing Saint Paul.
Following his audience with the Pope, Netanyahu visited Archbishop Pietro Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, and Monsignor Antoine Camilleri, Under-Secretary for Relations with States.