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 CNS Story:

ISRAEL-NETANYAHU May-14-2009 (470 words) With photos. xxxi

Pope, Israeli prime minister discuss peace, dialogue, priests' visas

By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service

NAZARETH, Israel (CNS) -- Peace in the Middle East, Catholic-Jewish relations and the difficulties of church workers in Israel were just a few of the topics discussed when Pope Benedict XVI met privately May 14 with newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Advancing the Middle East peace process was the main topic during the 15-minute private meeting between the pope and prime minister at the Franciscan convent in Nazareth, said Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman.

Father Lombardi also said the two leaders briefed each other about their recent meetings with Jordan's King Abdullah II. Pope Benedict had met the Jordanian leader May 8, while Netanyahu made a surprise visit to Jordan just hours before meeting the pope.

After their private meeting, the pope and prime minister were joined by top aides for a 20-minute discussion about the work of a Vatican-Israeli bilateral commission, Father Lombardi said.

The commission, established in 1993, has been working on and off for years trying to find a way to settle agreements related to the tax situation of Catholic institutions in Israel and other primarily fiscal issues. Despite hopes that the negotiations would have been completed prior to the pope's visit, the fiscal issues remain unresolved.

After the meeting, Netanyahu told reporters: "I met the pope first of all because it is important for Israel's relations on a global level; there are a billion Catholics. The pope stands at the head of the world Catholic community, and we want good relations with such a large part of humanity."

The prime minister said they spoke about "the historic process of reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism, and the pope is very interested."

The Israeli leader also asked the pope to speak out against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats against Israel.

"I told him it cannot be that at the beginning of the 21st century there is a state which says it is going to destroy the Jewish state," the prime minister said.

He said the pope told him that "he condemns all such things -- anti-Semitism, hate. I think we found in him an attentive ear."

He said Pope Benedict asked him for assistance in getting multiple-entry visas for Catholic clergy from surrounding Arab countries and with other "administrative matters."

"I said we would examine them in a positive atmosphere," Netanyahu said.

According to media reports, Israel recently turned down a church request for multiple-entry visas for 500 priests from Arab countries who work in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In recent years the issue of visas has become a major point of contention, and the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has warned that not having the visas hinders the priests' ability to carry out their pastoral work and prevents them from being able to visit their families.


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