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January 13, 2005
The Honorable Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of State Designate
The White House
Washington, DC 20504
By Fax: 202-456-2883
Dear Dr. Rice:
During the recent celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem, the entire world enjoyed a moment of joy at the easing of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and the hope of serious renewed efforts for peace in that troubled land. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have long supported a lasting and just peace, and we continue to pledge our support for the Road Map as a viable way forward.
We welcomed the Fundamental Agreement of 1993 between the Holy See and the State of Israel. However, we are deeply dismayed by the lack of progress, and we fear a lack of commitment, on the part of the Israeli government in negotiations with the Holy See over economic matters and other vital concerns to the Catholic Church and the wider Christian community in the Holy Land. Our concerns do not minimize the suffering of Jews and Muslims, but the issues between the government of Israel and the Holy See are also of great importance for religious liberty, not only for the Catholic Church but for the vitality of the all Christian communities within Israel. We urge the Administration to address these matters with the government of Israel and to move this process forward expeditiously and effectively.
In the Fundamental Agreement, the Holy See formally recognized and established diplomatic ties with the state of Israel, an action in accord with the wishes of successive U.S. administrations. This recognition proceeded even without a full resolution of outstanding major issues of concern to the Church, but with the promise by the Israeli government that these would be addressed through further negotiations. The agreed upon bases for these negotiations were the rights acquired by the Church prior to the UN mandate establishing the state of Israel. These rights were reaffirmed in the UN mandate establishing the state of Israel and in the Israeli declaration of independence.
Among the most critical issues facing the Church in Israel is its ability to maintain its rights to Church properties. Maintaining these properties is key to the mission and ministry of the Church in the Holy Land and thus its religious freedom. The exercise of arbitrary taxation policies by the government of Israel against Church properties and the government’s denial of access to due process through Israeli courts to settle property disputes violates international law and the history of the prior rights of the Church.
While these negotiations have faltered previously, it was only with strong U.S. encouragement that they were revived in July 2004. Unfortunately, the revival of talks has been hesitant and fitful. In addition, we have been told the Israeli negotiators have not had full empowerment to conduct talks with the degree of seriousness they need. The failure to enact and implement the Fundamental Agreement, including the lack of progress in negotiations on economic matters, raises serious questions about the basic commitments made by the Israeli government.
U.S. intervention in this matter is critical. We ask you to urge the government of Israel to renew its negotiations with the Holy See without further delays. Resolving these matters is vital to the mission and life of the Catholic Church as well as other Christian communities in the Holy Land. A just resolution of these serious concerns is also critical to interreligious relations in the wider region and the world.
Please be assured of our prayers as you exercise your leadership in helping to bring about a resolution to this concern for religious freedom and your efforts to secure a lasting and just peace.
Most Reverend William S. Skylstad
Bishop of Spokane
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