• FEATURES \ Jan 22, 2002
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    Crucifying relations with the Vatican
Crucifying relations with the Vatican The emotions in David Jaeger's voice come through in every sentence. A member of the board of Custodia, the Vatican body responsible for the holy sites in the Holy Land, Jaeger is also the board spokesman. He read this week on the Internet that the ministerial committee dealing with the controversy over the mosque in Nazareth's Sha'b a-Din Square hasn't finished its work. He called from Rome to warn that any further delay only raises tensions between Christians and Muslims.

Jaeger hints that he's learned to be skeptical of the credibility of the Israeli government. "When Foreign Minister Peres visited a few weeks ago, he told the press that the construction had been halted by a court order. But, at the time, the work was under way. What does he think? That it won't be immediately discovered that it was a virtual halt. The government didn't enforce the court order to halt the construction."
Jaeger, an attorney who went to elementary school in Tel Aviv, doesn't understand why a government decision is needed to enforce a court order. "If there was a pogrom at one of the settlements in the Galilee, wouldn't the law intervene?" he asks - and answers: "When things come down to a certain sector, like crime in Jaffa, it seems that breaking the law is tolerable."

Jaeger is highly critical of the current and past two governments, which, he says, turned Nazareth into a bleeding wound. "The most extraordinary thing is that the whole controversy was unnecessary. From the start it was completely stupid to head for a conflict with the church, which represents more than a billion believers. I have a pile of letters from the heads of the church to Netanyahu, Barak and Weizman. Who didn't turn to the government? The president of the bishops of the U.S. All the important patriarchs. I have letters and public statements. The Sharon government is the third to deal with the matter. The head of the Custodia wrote to Sharon and the church heads in Jerusalem issued a public statement against the mosque."

Jaeger, a convert to Catholicism, claims that all the pleas fell on deaf ears. "The attitude was that it was a local tribal conflict, and they didn't want to understand that Nazareth has the honor of hosting a site holy to a billion-and-a-half Christians. They only understood when things reached a boil and the highest level possible, when Sharon received a direct request from President Bush. Why poison such an important relationship for the state and the people, to the point of no return?"

Jaeger calls the Church of the Annunciation "the rock of our foundation" and says that many conflicts, like when Netanyahu tried to intervene in who would be named bishop, can be solved. "But if the mosque is built,. it will be impossible to demolish it and it will turn into a bleeding wound."

In the beginning of the 1990s, Jaeger played a key role in the secret contacts that led to the start of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican. He says that "generations of Israeli governments" have always declared that they are responsible for the holy places. "It will be too bad if bad feelings remain and Israel's credibility is irrevocably damaged because of this affair," he says. "Things have reached the point where church leaders issued a statement that raised from the depths UN Security Council Resolution 181," the November 29, 1947 decision that called for the establishment of the state , in which "international guarantees were demanded for the holy sites in the country."

Jaeger says he's praying that the controversy comes to a peaceful end, and that the decision-makers in Jerusalem learn the lesson that they should give more respect to the churches in Israel and that things should not be done in secret. "I hope the initiative by the prime minister and the cabinet is the start of a new road and a different approach to the church institutions that represent a large portion of humanity."