Visas and Taxes: What's Behind Vatican-Israel Talks

Interior Minister Poraz Explains His Country’s Position

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VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 15, 2004 ( An Israeli official’s visit to John Paul II revealed two points where the Holy See and the Mideast state differ: visas for religious, and fiscal matters involving Church institutions in Israel.

In past months, the issue of visas created serious obstacles for priests and religious aiming to carry out their ministry in Israel.

Father David Jaeger of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, an expert on juridical questions, said that what disturbs him most is the «secrecy of the norms used by government personnel to grant or refuse entry or residence permits for ecclesiastical personnel.»

Today, in statements on Vatican Radio, Father Jaeger said that «a state of law calls for the official publication of the norms and procedures so that all know them and can use them in their contacts with the government.»

In an interview with the papal broadcasting station, Israeli Interior Minister Avraham Poraz, who visited the Pope on Tuesday, said that in his meeting with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano, «I promised that our ministry will facilitate all the procedures in order to enable people of the clergy to come easily to the Holy Land.»

«I just explained that some of the people are coming from countries that are in a situation of hostility with Israel,» Poraz said.

«Unfortunately, we don’t have peace with our neighbors and if people are coming from, let’s say, Lebanon, Syria or Jordan, we must check them carefully,» he said.

«And we also agreed that in some cases, the Vatican in Rome will recommend the people in order that [we] will be assured, convinced that there shouldn’t be any problems with them,» the Israeli interior minister said.

«So if we get a recommendation from Rome that they are known here to the Vatican and that the people are not a threat, it will be much easier and we’ll be able to shorten all the security checks,» he added.

Regard the issue of taxes, Father Jaeger said that «the Church has never enjoyed and has never asked for tax exemptions for works or commercial establishments that might belong to the Church, if they exist in Israel. This has never been a problem.»

«However, for institutions of a religious or charitable nature, the Church has always benefited from tax exemptions on property. All these exemptions were consolidated by a law in 1938,» the Franciscan recalled.

«However, less than two years ago, while negotiations were taking place for this law to come into force, the Israeli government modified it to reduce drastically and unilaterally the Church’s historical exemptions, even before negotiating the agreement,» he said.

The Israeli interior minister said his visit to Rome served to take two steps. In his contacts with Vatican representatives, «we basically agreed that those activities that are commercial, like shops, hostels, hotels … should pay taxes like anybody else,» Poraz said.

«Of course, the churches themselves, places of prayer, are exempt from any taxation. Schools don’t have to pay anything,» he said.

In regard to monasteries, the Israeli said, «They will have to pay for the services given by the cities, such as sewage, electricity, water, cleaning, etc., but it is not … a tax.» It is a matter of simply «covering expenses,» he said.

Interior Minister Poraz believes that «it’s very important to improve relations. We know the Holy See has a great interest in the Holy Land. Israel and the holy places are not like any other place. And it’s our goal and duty to give all the access and to make possible full activity.»

«And of course we have problems with security,» he added. «For if there is a siege in Bethlehem, it will be a problem to cross over there. But my goal is to enable all the churches and all the faiths in Jerusalem to act as freely as possible.»

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