ROME, MAR. 8, 2001 ( Franciscan Father David Jaeger, a Jewish convert and expert in church-state relations in Israel, thinks Prime Minister Ariel Sharon´s opening speech to the parliament Wednesday was "moderate and open."

"General Sharon seems to have put aside former rhetoric," Father Jaeger told the Vatican missionary agency Fides. "Let´s hope words will be followed by facts."

The Franciscan said he considers the 1991 multilateral Madrid Conference as the best path for lasting peace in the Mideast.

"To relaunch the peace process, the new government will need massive encouragement by both Europe and the United States," he said. "Ten years after the inauguration of the Madrid Conference, seeing [that] attempts to sidestep it have failed, the most promising path is to return to Madrid."

The conference should be presided over by the United States and Russia, the priest suggested, with the participation of Europe and the United Nations, in order to have coordinated progress on two fronts: Israel-Palestine, and Israel-Syria-Lebanon.

Father Jaeger is convinced "there is no time to lose, any delay in resuming the peace process will only intensify armed conflict and terrorism."

He hoped that, from the Christian point of view, the new government will be committed to guaranteeing religious freedom.

"Everyone in Israel was shocked when General Stern, head of the army education service, voiced doubts about the patriotism of Israeli Christian soldiers, urging them to change their faith," Father Jaeger said.

"Further progress must also be made in Holy See-Israeli relations," he continued. "The Church is anxious to provide spiritual assistance for Israeli Christian military."

Another delicate point, Father Jaeger concluded, is the question of the Nazareth mosque. "We are waiting for the new government to cancel the previous decision to allow the building of a mosque on the doorstep of the Annunciation Basilica in Nazareth," he said. "This step is decisive for Christian-Jewish relations, and for relations between Israel and the Holy See."