Benedict receives Israeli PM at Vatican

A tax discount for church properties and peace in the Middle East were on the agenda for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Pope Benedict in their first meeting yesterday.

BBC News also reports that Prime Minister Olmert also asked Pope Benedict to urge Christians to protest against Holocaust denials following the Holocaust conference hosted by the Iran government, Mr Olmert's spokesman said.

Mr Olmert invited the Pope to visit Israel and Benedict said he planned to go when the situation was calmer, an Israeli official said.

After their meeting, which lasted for about half an hour instead of the expected 10 minutes, Mr Olmert said the Pope would like to visit the Holy Land.

"The timing will be determined at a later date," Mr Olmert said.

Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in the 1990s.

Pope John Paul II visited Israel in 2000, after the two states established ties.

Pope Benedict and Mr Olmert talked about Middle East peace issues, the situation of Catholics in Israel and access to Christian sites, a Vatican statement said.

The two also discussed negotiations between the Vatican and Israel on property belonging to the Church and taxation.

Following his audience with the Pope, Prime Minister Olmert also met with Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.

"In the course of the discussions," the Vatican press office explained in a note, "attention turned to the matter of peace in the Middle East, and to questions regarding the position of the Catholic community in Israel, also in view of the forthcoming Christmas celebrations."

In statements to the press later, Cardinal Bertone said that the meeting with Olmert was "very positive" and that "the visit to Israel and to the Holy Land is in the Pope's heart but, as we know, it can only take place in conditions of peace or at least of a stable and safe truce."

Church owes millions in taxes, Israel says

In another report backgrounding the dispute between Israel and the Vatican, the Jerusalem Post says that the Vatican and an array of Christian churches in Jerusalem owe the city hundreds of millions of shekels in overdue property tax.

According to Israeli law, properties that are used as houses of prayer are exempted from paying property tax (arnona).

But the churches, which owe vast amounts of properties in Jerusalem, are required to pay the city property tax for buildings they own that are not used for worship, including hostels, guest houses, and schools, the city said.

The total amount of unpaid property tax amounts to roughly NIS 300 million ($A90 million), with the Latin Patriarchate the biggest offender, a city spokesman said.

The debt collection has been frozen pending ongoing negotiations between the State of Israel and the Vatican over the delicate issue.

Benedict meets Athens Archbishop

Athens News Agency reports that Pope Benedict yesterday also met with Orthodox Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece, who was making his first visit by a primate of the Orthodox Church of Greece to the Vatican, except for his attendance of the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

In a statement, the two Church leaders proclaimed their "common mission in walking the difficult path of the dialogue of truth towards restoration of society's communion in the bond of love"

They also urged the developed nations to manifest greater assistance to the developing and poorer countries.

In the joint communique, issued after a meeting between the two Church leaders, the Archbishop and the Pope stressed their belief that religions held a particular role in the preservation and prevalence of world peace.

"As Christian leaders, we jointly urge the entirety of religions leaders to continue and strengthen the inter-religious dialogue and work for the creation of a society of peace and fraternity among individuals and peoples," the communique said.

They further urged the developed countries to "manifest greater contribution to the developing states but also to the poorer countries, with the aim of helping the weak and poor who are by far the children of God".

A Reuters report adds that Archbishop Christodolous also asked Pope Benedict on Thursday to return a piece of the Parthenon in the Vatican Museums.

Mr Olmert invited Pope Benedict to visit Israel soon (BBC News, 14/12/06)
Olmert and Pope Discuss Peace, Catholics in Israel (Universe, 14/12/06)
Background: Churches owe Jerusalem about NIS 300m. in property tax (Jerusalem Post, 14/12/06)
Archbishop, Pope meeting at Vatican (Athens News Agency, 14/12/06)
Greek bishop asks Pope to return piece of Parthenon (Reuters, 14/12/06)

Israel in surprise reopening of Holy See negotiations (CathNews, 29/11/06)

15 Dec 2006