However, Mr Peres's office denied any pressure was exerted on government officials to relinquish sovereignty on any sites.
Ayelet Frish, Mr Peres's spokesman, said it was requested that those involved make "progress on the issue as a good will gesture before the Pope arrives".
Catholic News Service
JERUSALEM – Israeli and Vatican officials denied reports that Israeli President Shimon Peres had asked the government to relinquish sovereignty over several holy places as a gesture of good will for Pope Benedict XVI.
Reports abounded in the Israeli press in early May claiming internal discord between Peres and officials from the Tourism and Interior ministries after the president allegedly had urged them to yield key Christian holy sites to the Vatican.
"What was published was taken out of context," a spokeswoman for the president's office said May 6. "The Israeli media published it as if the president was asking to give up sovereignty over holy sites, and there is a great distance between that and the reality."
The spokeswoman said Israel already has pledged to the Vatican that it will not confiscate land around six Christian sites for any sort of national development purpose such as the widening of roads. She said Peres had asked the ministries, as a gesture of good will before the pope's May 8-15 trip to the Holy Land, to confirm the pledge and to speed up the negotiations.
The holy sites mentioned include the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth; Gethsemane in Jerusalem; Capernaum, which served as Jesus' home base during his Galilean ministry; Tabgha, where Jesus called several of his apostles to follow him; Mount Tabor, believed to be the site of the Transfiguration; and the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper and the Pentecost descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles.
Archbishop Antonio Franco, papal nuncio to Israel, said the reports were a "big mess, a confusion of things."
"I don't know where they got their confusion but I regret the wrong message was given," Archbishop Franco said in answer to a question about the report at a May 5 press conference about Pope Benedict's visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories following his three-day visit to Jordan. "Honestly, we are working in good faith in trying to face different aspects of Catholic faith and Catholic life in Israel. We are still negotiating. To say this or that is simply the wrong message."
Legal and fiscal issues remained unresolved following the signing of the 1993 Fundamental Agreement between Israel and the Vatican, despite its stipulation that an agreement had to be reached on remaining matters within two years. Bilateral permanent working commissions have been meeting since 1999 to try to resolve the differences.
May 7, 2009
...Keen to crown Benedict's May 11-14 tour with a breakthrough, an Israeli inter-agency committee drafted a deal making the sites off-limits to state land seizures, which non-Jewish minorities often complain disproportionately target their turf.
"It is very relevant because we wanted the pope to be able to unveil a deal when he comes," an Israeli official familiar with the deliberations said. "The Catholic world has long seen this outstanding issue as a sign of poor faith on our part."
Yet when called upon this week to sign off on the proposal, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads a powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-leaning coalition government, refused.
"This matter is under the minister's authority, and he is not prepared to sacrifice Israeli sovereignty, even if it is only symbolic," Yishai's spokesman Roi Rachmanovitch said.
3.Vatican Radio, Father David Jaeger:
...Both sides have avoided any comment on the substance of the talks, which began in 1999. But knowledgeable church sources said that the issues discussed in the negotiations included:
– Protection of church properties, especially holy places, from government appropriation.
– Restitution of some properties that have been confiscated, including the site of the shrine church in Caesarea, which was expropriated and razed in the 1950s.
– Consolidation and confirmation of historic tax exemptions that have existed for church institutions in the Holy Land. The sources emphasize that the church needs these exemptions in order to survive, and that they are comparable to tax breaks offered religious entities in the United States.
– Access to the Israeli court system for church institutions whenever property disputes arise.
...Only in 1993 did the Vatican sign an accord recognising the state of Israel, but the "fundamental agreement" between the two sides, with its 15 articles about property rights and hugely valuable tax exemptions, has still not been implemented. Negotiations continue.
On Monday, May 11th, President Shimon Peres will hold an official, celebratory reception for Pope Benedict XVI with the participation of 700 guests representing the various communities and sectors of Israel. Among the guests who have been invited to take part in the ceremonies are Jewish, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders, Righteous Among the Nations, Israeli winners of the Nobel Prize, artists and heads of theaters, representatives of bereaved families and families of MIAs, Holocaust survivors, youth movement and student council representatives from throughout Israel, and members of the Israeli diplomatic corps.
The Pope will arrive at the President's Residence at 16:05 and will be received by the President on a red carpet. Two children, a Christian and a Jew from Nazareth and Upper Nazareth, respectively, will present the Pope with a basket of fruit and will welcome him in English in Hebrew. The Pope will also be presented with the "Seven Species" of plants named in the Bible and other Israeli-made produce, including a new strand of wheat developed by the Volcani Center and named Benedict XVI after the Pope.
After the Pope enters the President's Residence, the two will hold a working political meeting in the conference room. During the meeting, President Peres is expected to raise the strengthening of ties between Israel and the Vatican, the advancement of the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and the readiness of the people of Israel to make peace, and he will ask the Pope to increase his involvement in the making of peace in the Middle East. He will note that there is a special role for religious leaders in bringing about peace and breaking the connections between religion and terror.
Immediately following the meeting, there will be a tree-planting ceremony for a tree of peace - an olive tree in the garden of the President's Residence, after which will begin the aforementioned ceremony with 700 representatives of all different walks of life in Israel.
At the celebratory reception, the Pope and President Peres will deliver speeches. This will be followed by an artistic event with the participation of Children's Voices for Peace, a choir from the diverse community of Jaffa consisting of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian children who will sing the song "Hallelujah."
After the event, President Peres will accompany the Pope on his visit to Yad VaShem. The Director-General of the President's Office, Efrat Duvdevani, is in charge of the preparations for the Pope's visit at the President's Residence, and she notes that, "It is a great honor for the State of Israel to host His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI at the President's Residence, and we will work in an unprecedented fashion in order to receive the Pope with appropriate honor and to faithfully represent the State of Israel and the message of peace between religions and peoples."
Carol Ritter, a Catholic nun in the US who is a specialist in Holocaust and genocide studies, said the trip should not be seen as damage control.
"He should go as a penitent pilgrim. He should ask for forgiveness, he should go to learn and listen and not necessarily to pontificate, he should go with humility," she said. "It's a bit disingenuous to say he didn't know about Williamson when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which had been dealing with the Lefebvrists [a breakaway group of traditionalist clerics] from the very beginning."
...It could be a publicity windfall for Israel's tourism industry, which has been battered by recent violence in Gaza. El Al Airlines, which on May 15 will fly the Pope back to Rome from Tel Aviv on a 777 emblazoned with the Vatican insignia, is hoping that travelogue-y footage of a sightseeing pontiff will reassure jittery travelers that it's okay to visit Israel....