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Vatican-Israel Relations: Jerusalem and the Holy See


Interview with His Excellency Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, foreign minister of the Vatican State.

MEI: What are the Vatican's foremost concerns--religious as well as political--vis-à-vis the status of Jerusalem?

TAURAN: The Holy See's immediate and practical concern is with religious questions, while in other matters--political, economic, etc.--it is concerned inasmuch as they have a moral dimension. While the Holy See claims no competence to enter into territorial disputes between nations, on the contrary, it has the right and the duty to remind the parties of the obligation to resolve their controversies peacefully, in accordance with the principles of justice and equity, within the international legal framework.

MEI: What are the primary considerations in determining the Vatican's position on Jerusalem?

TAURAN: Jerusalem, the Holy City for the three monotheistic religions, has a unique value not only for the region but also for the entire world. Thus, Jerusalem is and has to be a universal symbol of fraternity and peace.

This uniqueness has to be preserved, and the Holy See has the right and duty to show its interest when the local situation leads to conflict, injustice, human rights violations, restrictions of religious freedom and conscience, fear and personal insecurity.

MEI: How has the Vatican's position on Jerusalem developed over the past 50 years?

TAURAN: In the beginning, the Holy See supported the proposal for internationalizing the territory, the "corpus separatum" called for by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947.

In the years that followed, although the objective of internationalization was shown to be unattainable, the Holy See continued to call for the protection of the Holy City's identity. It consistently drew attention to the need for an international commitment in this regard. To this end, the Holy See has consistently called for an international juridical instrument, which is what is meant by the phrase "an internationally guaranteed special status."

At the present time, while maintaining the request for a special status internationally guaranteed, emphasis moves to Jerusalem in a global context and to the preservation of its identity and vocation: the holy places, the areas surrounding them, guarantees for everybody of their own cultural and religious identity, freedom of religion and conscience for the inhabitants and the pilgrims, and the broader cultural dimension.

MEI: Does the Vatican distinguish between the status of Jerusalem's holy sites and the status of the rest of the city?

TAURAN: Jerusalem, the city where the three monotheistic religions have their spiritual roots, is also home to two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians. As I said before, the Holy See is not involved in knowing if the city of Jerusalem has to be the capital of one or two states. This question will be discussed between Israelis and Palestinians through bilateral negotiations.

The Holy See wants to preserve the uniqueness of the most sacred parts of the city, called holy places, so that in the future neither of the parties and none of the three religions can claim them exclusively for themselves, because they are part of the patrimony which belongs to the whole world.

Of course, the holy places are not museums--monuments for the tourists--they are places where communities of believers live, with their schools, their cultures, their charitable institutions, etc., and they have to be safeguarded in their sacrality and permanence. The Holy See is convinced that the uniqueness and sacredness of the city can be preserved only by a special status internationally guaranteed.

MEI: What is the nature of your relationship with Jerusalem's mayor, Ehud Olmert, and other Israeli leaders on the question of Jerusalem?

TAURAN: The Holy See, as the expression of the central government of the Catholic Church, deals with the government of Israel. As regards the Mayor of Jerusalem, he has more contacts with the religious leaders of the local Catholic community. Having said that, I remember having had breakfast with Mr. Olmert in Jerusalem, in December 1995, when I paid an official visit to Israel. Of course he is perfectly aware of the Holy See's position concerning the holy sites, as are the other Israeli leaders.

MEI: What is the nature of your relationship with Palestinian leaders with respect to the Jerusalem issue?

TAURAN: The position of the Holy See is well accepted in the Arab world. By the contacts we have, I can say that also Palestinian leaders share such acceptance. Jerusalem remains, as you know, a central issue for the Palestinian people. And they know that the formula proposed by the Holy See is intended to avoid that, in the future, the most sacred parts of the city be claimed by one party or one religion as its own, independently of the political status of the whole city.

MEI: Has any kind of public or private dialogue been established between the Vatican and Jewish and Islamic leaders on the question of Jerusalem?

TAURAN: The Holy See has always taken the opportunity to explain to the religious leaders as well as political leaders its position about Jerusalem. I remember, for example, a conversation I had, some years ago, with His Majesty King Hassan of Morocco, who is also president of the Al-Quds Committee. I can say that His Majesty fully shares our position on Jerusalem. I was recently in Cairo and had an exhaustive conversation on this topic with [Foreign Minister Amr] Moussa, whose views coincide perfectly with ours.

MEI: Are you optimistic or pessimistic that the Jerusalem issue might be resolved by the millennium and the anticipated visit of His Holiness Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land?

TAURAN: During my last visit to Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to express the Holy See's satisfaction with the Wye Plantation agreement, through which the peace process has been put in motion once again. We hope that the aspirations for dialogue and peace will contribute to the implementation of what has just been agreed upon.

For the Holy Father, his pilgrimage to the Holy Land has to be a sign of encounter between peoples. If the peace process will go forward, as we wish, I think that there will be a greater possibility for a visit of the Holy Father to the Holy Land. But, for the time being, there are no concrete plans for that [Ed: The Pope has subsequently made plans to visit Jerusalem early in the year 2000].

Source: Tauran, J.L. 1999, Jerusalem and the Holy See: interview with HE Archbishop Tauran foreign minister of the Vatican state, Mid East Insight.