UPDATES 7 pm Israel time Friday:
*As the situation on the Golan Heights deteriorates, so does the situation in the crucial demilitarized zone between Syria and Israel. Yesterday saw Syrian tanks enter the zone in a successful attempt to retake the Quneitra crossing. Today has seen a wholescale pullout of UN monitoring forces–Poles, Slovaks, and Austrians. Other DMZ forces such as those from the Philippines are on the verge of leaving as well.
Syrian rebel forces largely led by Al-Qaeda groups have been trying to take over the U.N. positions throughout the afternoon. By this evening, we even have Vladimir Putin volunteering to send in Russian troops to take over the U.N. positions.
Remarkably, the United Nations through its Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq has just openly embraced Putin’s “offer”.
*As you probably do not realize, dear reader, today is Naksa Day throughout the Arab world, the inglorious day for Arabs on which Israelis took the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1967. Thousands have marched in support of the Palestinians through the streets of Cairo this afternoon carrying anti-Israel signs, and the late afternoon has seen a riot at the Damascus Gate with attacks by Arabs against Israeli security personnel.
It was announced today that Pope Francis I intends to visit Israel in the near future. Of course, we can be sure that the visit will actually be to “Palestine” and “the Holy Land” (the Vatican has always been loathe to use the word “Israel” in its official announcements).
Why may Francis come? Simply because Israel has nearly come to a far-reaching agreement with the Catholic Church concerning so-called “Catholic properties” in Israel–an agreement hammered out after years of excruciating discussions.
Here are the elements of that agreement:
1. The Cenacle on Mount Zion, the room in which Jesus supposedly celebrated “the Last Supper”, will now be managed by the Franciscan Custody but will remain the property of the State of Israel.
This is actually a fairly dramatic development because the Church, via the Franciscans, has always claimed complete ownership of the room.
2. The small parking lot beside the Cenacle will similarly not come under Church ownership, but Israel has agreed to provide a similarly sized piece of land for Catholic use elsewhere.
3. The issue of property taxes has been resolved by Israel exempting Catholic cemeteries, places of worship, and “Holy Places” from taxes but the Church agreeing to pay taxes on parts of buildings used for commercial purposes such as restaurants, and souvenir shops and kiosks.
4. The only issue still unresolved concerns a small plot of land in Caesarea which once housed a tiny church dedicated to St. Paul. What the Vatican would like is a place of worship in the area, preferably at the remains of an old Crusader church located in the national park at the location.
The remaining discussion is about whether to grant Catholics access to the site for worship or to provide another plot of land outside the park for a “pilgrim’s” residence.
All in all, Israel’s agreement with the Vatican seems fair. Israel has not given up sovereignty to its land, and the Church has access to its holy places.