World News

Israeli minister blocks zone deal for Church sites

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s interior minister has blocked a proposal to declare six Christian heritage sites exempt from land appropriations by the Jewish state ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict, Israeli officials said on Monday.

Unresolved zoning rights at the Vatican-owned shrines, including the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth and the Church of the Multiplication on the Sea of Galilee, have impeded relations that Israel and the Holy See established in 1993.

Keen to crown Benedict’s May 11-14 tour with a breakthrough, an Israeli inter-agency committee drafted a deal making the sites off-limits to state land seizures, which non-Jewish minorities often complain disproportionately target their turf.

“It is very relevant because we wanted the pope to be able to unveil a deal when he comes,” an Israeli official familiar with the deliberations said. “The Catholic world has long seen this outstanding issue as a sign of poor faith on our part.”

Yet when called upon this week to sign off on the proposal, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads a powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-leaning coalition government, refused.

“This matter is under the minister’s authority, and he is not prepared to sacrifice Israeli sovereignty, even if it is only symbolic,” Yishai’s spokesman Roi Rachmanovitch said.

Further complicating the dispute is the fact the one of the sites under discussion, the Garden of Gethsemane, is in Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognised internationally.

Palestinians want to set up a capital for their future state in East Jerusalem and would likely resent any Vatican overtures that appeared to confer recognition on Israeli controls.

“All we are seeking are safeguards that they (sites) will not be taken away in the future,” an informed Catholic Church source in Rome said.

Yishai’s decision could be overruled in a vote by the Israeli cabinet, political sources said. Netanyahu’s office had no immediate word on whether such a vote was planned.

Israeli officials have described Benedict’s visit as a chance to dispel tensions over the Vatican’s handling of a Holocaust-denying bishop and its attendance at a U.N. racism conference where Iran’s president railed against Zionism.

Having seen tourism plummet over a Palestinian revolt that erupted in 2000, Israel also hopes the pope will usher in more pilgrimages from the billion-strong Catholic world.

Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome, Editing by Janet Lawrence