THE Vatican's recognition of Israel has closed the circle on nearly two millennia of Roman Catholic-Jewish hostility and has launched a new era of reconciliation, Jewish and Christian leaders say.
``After 1,993 years, I think this can truly be described as a historic agreement,'' said Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres as the exchange of diplomatic ties was formalized last week in Jerusalem.
Leading Christian Arabs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank have criticized the Vatican's move, saying the accord is premature in light of the impasse over the peace process. For Jews worldwide, however, the recognition culminates a decades-long process of interfaith dialogue that sought to reverse centuries of Catholic Church persecution.
``Medieval Christian teaching was that Jews were punished for their failure to recognize Jesus by their exile from the Promised Land,'' says Rabbi David Rosen, an adviser to the Israeli Foreign Ministry. ``Accordingly, the modern-day return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel was a very difficult thing for the [Catholic] church to digest.''
In 1904, Pope Pius X rebuffed an appeal from Zionist leader Theodor Herzl seeking support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine: ``The Jews have not recognized our Lord; therefore, we cannot recognize the Jewish people,'' he told Mr. Herzl.
For decades afterward, the Catholic Church maintained an official silence on the creation and existence of the Israeli state. But the tide began turning in 1965 with the publication of the Second Vatican Council's landmark document Nostra Aetate (In Our Times). The document renounced the Catholic Church's teachings of Jewish collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus and deplored anti-semitism.
In 1986, Pope John Paul II went further, referring to the Jewish people as ``our elder brothers'' in the first-ever Papal visit to a synagogue in Rome. In 1987, he affirmed that the Jewish people ``have a right to a homeland.''
The Vatican, however, refrained from creating political ties with Israel as the conflict intensified over the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and rising Muslim fundamentalism made the position of Middle Eastern Christian minorities ever more precarious.
Madrid talks a breakthrough
The 1991 Madrid peace talks, however, transformed the Vatican's reticence into a new eagerness for relations. ``If the Palestinians, the Jordanians, the Syrians are talking with Israel, why shouldn't we?'' asked Msgr. Richard Mathes, a leading Vatican representative in Jerusalem.
Israeli and Catholic theologians now say that the Vatican's recognition of Israel will give the Church a moral - and perhaps even a political - role in eventual talks on the status of Jerusalem.
Michael Sabbah, the Latin (Roman Catholic) patriarch of Jerusalem, has said that the Vatican will use its new status to press for free access by all Christian and Muslim Arabs to the holy city. Despite such assurances, many of the 50,000 Palestinian Christians of the West Bank are critical of the accord, and some privately fear the Vatican move will reflect negatively on them in the eyes of the Arab Muslims. Syria and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah have both condemned the accord.
``We think this is not the appropriate time,'' says Hanan Ashrawi, former Palestinian delegation spokeswoman, and a Christian. ``The Vatican should be involved in permanent status negotiations on Jerusalem, but Israel should not demand a price in advance.''
Such opposition comes against a historical background in which Arab Christians have periodically suffered from Muslim perceptions of dual allegiance. ``Arab Christians are associated first with their Jewish Biblical roots, then with the Crusades, and then with the Christian churches and Western colonial powers that established bases in the Middle East in the last century,'' observes Daniel Rossing, an Israeli who conducts interfaith study groups for Christians.
The panorama of modern-day Arab Christian religious denominations - Latin, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran - reflects the legacy of Western colonialism. Former missionary schools in Israel and the occupied territories attract the cream of Arab youth - both Christian and Muslim.
Partly as a reaction to their perceived ``elite'' educational and economic status, many of the 50,000 Palestinian Christians living in the West Bank and Jerusalem have sought to play down their Western orientation - identifying with Palestinian nationalism, pan-Arab culture, or a home-grown brand of Christian liberation theology.
Christians react to accord
``It is true that we are Christians, but our history and our culture is Islamic, and we are very proud of this,'' says Eliam Rishmawi, a pharmacist from the Bethlehem-area village of Beit Sahur. Rishmawi says the Vatican-Israel accord is ``premature'' in light of the continuing occupation.
The accord had been greeted more positively among Israel's 100,000 Arab Christian citizens, who live in communities of the northern Galilee region where Jesus grew up and preached.
``The fact that the Vatican, our spiritual mother, is establishing relations with the state of Israel, where we are loyal citizens, gives us a feeling of joy,'' said Antoine Shaheen, general secretary of the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church in Nazareth. He is hopeful the Israeli-Vatican agreement will translate into greater Catholic and Israeli government support for Christian schools, hospitals, and tourism.
While the Israeli Christian community has tripled in absolute numbers since 1949, the Muslim population is growing at a much faster rate. In the West Bank and Jerusalem, the Christian community has declined sharply, due to widespread emigration to the West.
Only recently are there signs that the emigration tide may be turning. ``This Christmas, for the first time in seven years, there was a peaceful, joyful atmosphere in Bethlehem - with a touch of hope,'' says Monsignor Matthes.