Israel-Vatican Recognition Pact Signed Papal Visit to Holy Land Is Possible under Accord

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Israel and the Vatican signed an agreement of mutual recognition Thursday, striving to put behind them 2,000 years of often bitter Jewish-Catholic relations.

The accord is expected to lead to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land next year by Pope John Paul II.

"Behind the agreement there are thousands of years of history full of hatred, of fear and ignorance with a few islands of understanding, of cooperation and of dialogue," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin said at the signing in Jerusalem. "Behind the agreement there are very few years of light and many more years of darkness."

Monsignor Claudio Celli, Vatican undersecretary for foreign relations who signed the accord, said he hoped the Holy See would now play a bigger role in Middle East peace talks and negotiations on the future of Jerusalem. "We need . . . an umbrella that can protect the peculiarity of this holy city, an international warranty in order to protect, to save, to recognize the (uniqueness) of the city for the three monotheistic religions," Celli said.

Still, there was dissent. Some Jews blame earlier Roman Catholic Church teachings for fomenting anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. Some Arabs believe that the Roman Catholic Church should have waited until the status of Jerusalem was discussed in peace talks before granting recognition.

In the accord, the Vatican agreed to combat anti-Semitism, and Israel agreed to respect Catholic holy places and encourage Christians to visit the Holy Land.

"It is not just an agreement on relations between the state of the Vatican and the state of Israel, but this is a change in the long, tortuous, painful relations between two great religions," Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said at a dinner marking the accord.

At a reception with Vatican officials, Peres said he also hoped that reconciliation could be reached with Islam. "I hope the day will come when a third partner will join this accord - the Muslim partner - and that we will also reach a three-way agreement between the three great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam," he said.

The agreement caps a wave of international acceptance of Israel following the collapse of the Soviet bloc beginning in 1989 and the opening of U.S.-backed Mideast peace talks in 1991.

In Washington, the White House welcomed the accord. A statement issued by Dee Dee Myers, President Bill Clinton's press secretary, said the agreement would help maintain the "momentum for peace in the Middle East."

Also in Washington, Archbishop William Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the accord marks "a major step forward in the dialogue of reconciliation between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people."

Beilin and Celli signed the agreement of principles at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

They agreed to establish full diplomatic ties, with ambassadors to be exchanged in about four months. The two sides have two years to negotiate the details of the agreement.

Celli said the accord had "fundamental religious and spiritual significance, not only for the Holy See and Israel, but for millions of people throughout the world. …