National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 9, 2003

Pope John Paul II welcomes Yosef Neville Lamdan as Israel's ambassador to the Holy See in September 2000.
-- CNS/Vatican
Three turbulent years of diplomacy

Vatican-Israel chill will not break ties, ambassador says


Against the backdrop of yet another much-anticipated Middle East peace initiative, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the Holy See granted NCR an exclusive April 30 interview reviewing his three years at the heart of the relationship between Israel and the Vatican, and between Catholicism and Judaism.

While the interview did not touch directly on the Middle East “road map” or other current events, Ambassador Yosef Neville Lamdan offered behind-the-scenes detail and analysis, much never before revealed, which bears upon tensions still at play in the Middle East.

Lamdan’s arrival as ambassador to the Holy See was sandwiched between watershed events. He came to Rome in September 2000, just five months after John Paul’s March 21-26, 2000, visit to the Holy Land, which produced hopes of dramatic new breakthroughs -- and just 10 days before the beginning of the second intifada, which put those hopes in a deep freeze.

The trip to the Holy Land, Lamdan said, symbolized John Paul’s personal commitment to dialogue with Judaism and with Israel.

When Lamdan presented his credentials in September 2000, he said, John Paul told him that his 1986 visit to Rome’s synagogue, the first by a pope, represented the first “station” along a new path. The second station, the pope said, was the Jubilee Year visit to the Holy Land. It was time, the pope said, to build a third station.

Despite the pope’s commitment, however, Lamdan said he detects a sea change in the Vatican’s interreligious priorities in the direction of Islam, a shift that began before 9/11 and the Iraq war, but that has been accelerated by those developments. In effect, Lamdan said, Islam has replaced Judaism as the Vatican’s most important interreligious dialogue partner.

“I do think that in some corporate way some type of decision, possibly a strategic one, has been taken by the Vatican in the last two years to try to redefine the relationship with Islam,” Lamdan said.

As one example, Lamdan pointed to the now-famous rhetorical question posed by the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, about the prospect of war in Iraq: “Is it really worth irritating a billion Muslims?”

The Vatican, Lamdan said, has three core concerns with Islam. The first is the fate of Christians in the Arab world; the second is Afro-Asian competition for new adherents; and the third is the rising Islamic presence in Europe.

This new engagement with Islam does not have to come at the expense of the dialogue with Judaism, Lamdan said, but he warned of two dangers.

The first is “politicization,” by which he meant a tendency for the Catholic church to take “pro-Islamic” political positions. He pointed to two recent joint statements between the Vatican and Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, widely considered the Vatican of the Islamic world. Both called for an end to “occupation” in the Holy Land, which Lamdan referred to as a “code word” for criticizing Israeli policy.

The second danger is that the Catholic dialogue with Judaism will be overshadowed. He said he does not see this happening under John Paul II. What might happen under a future pontificate, however, is anyone’s guess.

Lamdan said his most tense moments as ambassador came during the standoff over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Israeli forces that had entered the West Bank as part of an operation to root out Palestinian militants, encircled the church April 2, 2002, as Palestinian gunmen fled inside. Several dozen other people, including a number of Franciscans, were thus trapped in the church. The Israelis described the situation as an “occupation” by terrorists, the Palestinians as a “siege” by the Israeli army.

Lamdan described the next 39 days as a time of “huge concern” and “almost hourly contact” with the Vatican’s top diplomats, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran and his deputy Celestino Migliore (now an archbishop and permanent observer for the Holy See at the United Nations).

“This is one of the most holy places in the Christian world, and our fear was that it would suffer some kind of disaster,” Lamdan said.

Diplomatic efforts, Lamdan said, were muddied by a cacophony of voices on the Catholic side, many singing different tunes. Chief among them, Lamdan said, were the Franciscans, among whom he said the Israelis eventually identified five different factions. They were:

  • Arab Franciscans inside the church;
  • Non-Arab Franciscans inside the church;
  • The Franciscan custodians of the Holy Sites, with offices in Jerusalem;
  • Franciscans in Assisi, who led a worldwide letter-writing campaign to pressure the Israelis;
  • The headquarters of the Franciscan order in Rome.

The Arabs and non-Arabs inside the basilica, Lamdan said, had different views about the situation, with the Arabs generally more sympathetic to the 39 Palestinian gunmen, including 13 figures Israel defined as “senior terrorists.”

At times, Lamdan said, the Franciscans inside the basilica floated plans for resolving the standoff that were “totally naive.” Lamdan did not want to be more specific, but NCR reported at the time that one such scheme called for Bethlehem Christians to enter the basilica for Mass. The gunmen would lay down their arms, and everyone would walk out together, with the gunmen simply dispersing. Both the Vatican and the Israelis rejected the idea, in part for fear that the Christians would either become hostages or be caught in a crossfire.

Lamdan also bluntly called the role played by the Franciscan custodians, especially spokesperson Fr. David Jaeger, “thoroughly unhelpful.” Jaeger led an ultimately failed attempt before Israel’s high court to force the Israeli army to restore electricity, water, food and telephone communication to the basilica.

Another player was the Latin Rite Patriarch of Jerusalem, Michel Sabbah, whose role Lamdan also called “unhelpful.” At one stage, Sabbah said the Palestinians were “guests” of the church, denying they were holding anyone against their will.

Lamdan then revealed that the president of Israel, Moshe Katsav, had proposed a diplomatic mission for Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, Vatican diplomat, who had been dispatched by John Paul II to try to mediate a resolution. The aim was to separate the civilians from the gunmen. The Vatican was prepared to accept the plan, Lamdan said, but it was “turned down flat” by Yasser Arafat.

The drama played out at the same time that the Israelis were confining Arafat to his headquarters in Ramallah. Lamdan believes Arafat hoped to use the situation in the church to gain freedom of movement. This “delayed resolution,” Lamdan said.

Eventually, European governments agreed to take 13 of the gunmen Israel identified as the most dangerous, and 26 more were allowed to return to the Gaza Strip.

In the final analysis, Lamdan said, the crisis in Bethlehem “illustrates the limits of Vatican diplomacy,” because as a matter of fact the Vatican had “no influence whatsoever.” Moral authority, he argued, had no sway over gunmen with “no respect for religious sensitivities.”

Lamdan said the Vatican’s diplomats had a “realistic, accurate evaluation,” but there were discordant voices within the Holy See. L’Osservatore Romano, for example, the official Vatican newspaper, regularly referred to the standoff as an Israeli “siege,” even accusing the Israelis of trying to “exterminate” the Palestinian people. The paper falsely reported, Lamdan charged, that the Israelis had killed a Catholic priest and injured a group of Brigittine nuns. The paper ran photos showing Israeli soldiers “in the worst possible light,” Lamdan said. At one point, Jewish leaders accused L’Osservatore of anti-Semitism.

Asked if he ever complained, Lamdan responded dryly, “Our experience is that L’Osservatore Romano is not open to dealing with foreign diplomats.”

Lamdan revealed that at one stage the embassy had supplied material to the Vatican to rebut a particular charge L’Osservatore Romano intended to publish. Under orders from the State secretariat, the article was pulled at the last minute.

The same phenomenon of contrasting voices, Lamdan said, was visible in the Vatican’s statements on the Iraq war, a fact that he said had generated “a certain amount of uneasiness” in the Vatican’s diplomatic corps.

As for the future of the Vatican/Israeli relationship, Lamdan said he hopes it overcomes the chill of the second intifada. Once the violence began, Lamdan said, the Vatican said bilateral relations had to be put on hold. The result, he said, is that the relationship has been “robbed of content.”

The freeze extended even to seemingly minor matters such as cultural exchanges. For example, Lamdan had wanted to bring to the Vatican an art exhibit from Jerusalem on the Holy Land as the cradle of Christianity. The Secretariat of State, however, bluntly refused, explaining that staging such an exhibit could be seen as “showing partiality.”

The turning point, Lamdan said, came with the Jan. 12, 2002, visit of Katsav to John Paul II. In their private exchange, Lamdan said, Katsav told the pope that the 10th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Israel was approaching in 2004, and if things didn’t improve, there was a danger the commitment on both sides would “wither away.” Speaking in English, the pope responded that he wanted to make 2003 a “turning point” in the relationship.

When Katsav exited the pope’s studio and repeated the “turning point” phrase to those waiting outside, Lamdan said, Sodano was visibly surprised. Sodano later returned to the pope to find out what exactly John Paul had said. Through channels, Lamdan said, word came down that the pope had indeed meant it -- 2003 was to be a turning point.

Since that time, Lamdan said, there are telling signs of forward movement. In March, for example, the Vatican hosted a concert to mark the third anniversary of the pope’s trip to Israel. The previous two years it had refused to do so. Also, the Vatican consented to a recent academic conference at the Lateran University that was cosponsored by an Israeli think tank. Lamdan himself was invited to be part of a panel at the Pontifical Committee for Historical Science, something that had not happened during his three years on the job.

“John Paul has been a revolutionary pope vis-à-vis the Jews, and a very positive pope with regard to the state of Israel,” Lamdan said.

Lamdan said that he “treasures” the ties between his country and the Holy See.

“The relationship is still young,” he said. “Israel is still discovering the Vatican. I’m sure the Vatican is still grappling with the notion of a Jewish state in the Holy Land. … But this will be a long-standing relationship, and it will not be stopped.”

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 9, 2003

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: