National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 23, 2003

Franciscan disputes Israeli ambassador’s remarks


There was no diplomatic confusion between the Vatican and the Franciscan order, or among Franciscans themselves, during a 39-day standoff over Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in 2002, according to a Franciscan spokesperson and member of the Vatican delegation for bilateral negotiations with Israel.

Franciscan Fr. David-Maria Jaeger made the statement by way of response to an exclusive April 30 NCR interview with Neville Lamdan, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the Holy See, in which Lamdan asserted there had been a diversity of voices from the Catholic side during the standoff. The interview was published in NCR’s May 9 issue.

Jaeger also disputed Lamdan’s claim that Israel had proposed a secret diplomatic mission for Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, a frequent papal troubleshooter, to end the Bethlehem conflict. The mission was blocked by Yasser Arafat, Lamdan said. Such a mission “does not correspond to anything known to me, or, I imagine, to anyone else,” Jaeger said.

Moreover, according to Jaeger a recent remark from Pope John Paul to Israeli President Moshe Katsav that 2003 should mark a “turning point” in the Israeli/Vatican relationship was not a gesture of rapprochement, as Lamdan suggested, but a signal the Vatican is impatient with Israel’s lethargy in ongoing talks.

Jaeger gave NCR a typed three-page response to the Lamdan interview, the full text of which may be found in the Documents section of the NCR Web site ( Jaeger also sat down for a May 10 interview with NCR in Rome.

Like Lamdan, Jaeger was in Rome in April 2002 during the standoff over the Bethlehem basilica, and like Lamdan he was in daily, in some cases hourly, contact with other parties to the negotiations. At that time, Jaeger issued a stream of press statements on behalf of the Franciscans.

In the April 30 interview, Lamdan said efforts to resolve the Bethlehem standoff, with Palestinian gunmen inside the basilica and the Israeli army outside, had been complicated by different messages coming from various factions within the Franciscans, the Vatican and other players.

Jaeger denied this.

“There was no daylight at all between what he calls ‘the Vatican,’ the ‘headquarters of the Franciscan Order in Rome,’ and the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land,” Jaeger said.

Jaeger said that Lamdan’s suggestion of differences between Arab and non-Arab Franciscans was offensive.

“Within our Franciscan brotherhood of the Holy Land are Arabs and Jews, Americans and Iraqis, without these inherited this-worldly distinctions ever being in any way an obstacle to brotherhood,” he said. “To attack precisely this most precious reality of our brotherhood is therefore most offensive to me, and to my brethren too.”

Jaeger rejected Lamdan’s suggestion of a secret mission for Etchegaray.

“The one certainly known fact is that, when Etchegaray did go to the Holy Land, the hardliners within the [Israeli] military absolutely declined to let him reach the besieged shrine,” he said.

Jaeger said he had already put a workable proposal on the table, which the Israelis rejected, to allow the gunmen safe passage to Palestinian-controlled territory in the Gaza Strip.

In the NCR interview, Lamdan called Jaeger’s role during the conflict “thoroughly unhelpful,” blaming him for leading an appeal to the Israeli supreme court against the military’s decision to isolate the compound and cut off food and water.

In fact, Jaeger said, he had “nothing to do with” the appeal, which was filed by others, and that Lamdan was wrong in calling it “failed.”

“The justices were horrified to learn that the military were preventing the evacuation of the rotting corpses of Palestinian men shot by army snipers, whereupon the military quickly changed their position. Likewise the justices extracted from the military a promise, on the record, to stop preventing food supplies from reaching the Franciscans,” he said.

Whereas Lamdan blamed Palestinian gunmen with “no respect for religious sensitivities” for prolonging the standoff, Jaeger laid principal responsibility at the feet of the Israelis.

The army, Jaeger said, “practically herded the Palestinian armed men into Manger Square.” Once the gunmen were inside, Jaeger said, the Israelis wanted to storm the basilica.

“In a painfully obvious attempt to lay the conceptual and public-relations groundwork for an armed assault … the army declared that the resident Franciscan community were ‘hostages,’ ” but this was not true, Jaeger said.

“The only hostage was the shrine, not the Franciscans,” he told NCR.

Instead, he said, the Franciscans were resolved to remain in order to prevent bloodshed. Had life been lost inside the holy site, Jaeger said in the May 10 interview, “it would have lost all meaning for all time. It would have been useless to return.”

Lamdan had said in his NCR interview that the Vatican put relations with Israel “on hold” once the second intifada broke out in 2000, but that John Paul’s Jan. 12, 2002 comment to Katsav about a “turning point” was evidence of a thaw.

Jaeger said, however, the comment was intended as a challenge.

It was the Israeli government, Jaeger said, that had suspended talks with the Vatican from November 2002 to early April 2003. Most pointedly, Jaeger said, the Holy See wants Israel to speed up negotiations on an economic agreement to settle a series of financial and property issues.

One symbolic issue, Jaeger said, is the fate of the Cenacle, the shrine at the traditional site of the Last Supper, which the Ottoman Turks confiscated in the 16th century, and which is now in the hands of Israel.

“We, the Franciscans especially -- the rightful owners since 1342 -- very much hope for a gesture of generosity, good-will, friendship on the part of Israel, returning the shrine to us, so that it can once more be a place of regular Catholic worship,” Jaeger said.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2003

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