Vatican-Israel Relations

Vatican-Israel Relations

Relations between the Vatican and Israel are a complex combination of diplomacy mixed with interfaith discussion.

Last updated May 12, 2009 8:00 am (EST)

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The relationship between Catholics and Jews is marred by centuries of troubles, including doctrinal polemics, Crusade-era massacres, and forced exiles of Jews. The Vatican moved to improve relations with Jews in 1965, although it did not formally recognize Israel until 1993. Today experts say relations between the Vatican and Israel have never been better. Still, trouble spots remain. Lingering Jewish bitterness over the Vatican’s posture during the Holocaust, the uncertain legal status of church property in Israel, and outstanding concerns about Christian religious sites in the Holy Land continue to be diplomatic sticking points.

Catholic-Jewish Relations

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council adopted the "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions," called Nostra Aetate (in our time). The declaration addresses the church’s relationship with all non-Catholics and, in particular, affirms the deep connection between Christianity and Judaism, rejecting anti-Semitism "any time and by anyone." In 2005, Eugene Fisher, associate director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said the declaration marked "the end of one long era in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations."

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Yet Nostra Aetate made no specific mention of the state of Israel. The Vatican did not officially recognize the country until 1993. In the intervening years, the church continued to seek reconciliation with the Jewish community, including through the 1974 creation of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. In 1998, the Vatican issued an apology for the Catholic failure to do more for the Jewish people during the Holocaust; it was considered an important step in easing relations, some experts say. Pope John Paul II was particularly successful in easing sour relations (PBS), experts say, noting his historic visit to Auschwitz, his close friendship with camp survivor Jerzy Kluger, and his trip to the Holy Land in 2000, where he wept at the Western Wall. "It was a substantively powerful moment," says Timothy Samuel Shah, CFR adjunct senior fellow for religion and foreign policy.

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Even with the growing interfaith dialogue, experts say that a number of tensions remain. Among them is lasting anger and mistrust within the Jewish community over centuries of mistreatment at the hands of Christians generally, and Roman Catholics particularly in some Central and Eastern European countries. A more profound problem involves the Catholic Church’s struggle to reconcile the role of Judaism and Jews in its own religious doctrine. Rev. James Massa, head of the USCCB’s Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, says the Vatican has gone out of its way to dispel any notion that Jews can be held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. However, Pope Benedict’s 2007 decision (Reuters) to allow part of the Easter prayer to be said once again in Latin, a version which includes language viewed as a call for the conversion of Jews, sparked anger. The Vatican’s position on non-Catholics remains that divine salvation cannot be achieved outside the church, but there is an ongoing discussion on whether God’s covenant with the people of Abraham still stands--meaning Jews would not need to acknowledge Jesus to enter heaven, says Raymond Cohen, professor of international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. CFR’s Shah, who has written widely on doctrinal issues, says rather than being disrespectful to the Jewish faith, Pope Benedict was making the point that success of the interfaith dialogue did not mean a retreat from core Catholic beliefs.

Normalizing Diplomatic Relations

Though the Vatican supported the 1947 UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which partitioned Palestine, it failed to recognize Israel for another forty-five years. A spirited debate exists about the reasons for this gap. Some experts say the main reason the Vatican did not recognize Israel was over fears of the backlash it would create for Christians in Arab countries in light of the Palestine issue. Cohen argues that following the Oslo Accords of 1993, which led Israel to begin diplomatic relations with a number of its Arab neighbors, the Israel position no longer made sense. Others argue the church’s desire for greater control of Jerusalem stifled diplomacy. And there continues to be suspicion among Jews that anti-Semitic factions within the Vatican played a part.

In a 2004 speech, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, one of the Vatican’s top diplomats, skirted the question but noted that the Vatican "always took the existence of Israel for granted; even in the absence of formal diplomatic relations there were significant contacts."

In December 1993, the Vatican and Israel signed a diplomatic treaty; they exchanged ambassadors a few months later. The Vatican-Israel agreement normalized relations between the two nations, furthered a Jewish-Catholic dialogue already under way, and helped establish a path for regularizing the church’s legal status in Israel. "On the whole, it’s a pretty promising relationship," says Cohen, noting that it isn’t always without tensions. Overall, the Vatican’s relationship with Israel is based on international law, not theology, says Massa.

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Property remains an issue. The 1993 accord has yet to be ratified by Israel’s Knesset and the legal status of church properties and communities in Israel are still under negotiation. Massa says the Vatican is disappointed with the unresolved economic issues and lack of ratification. The church has extensive properties in Israel. When the region was controlled by the Ottoman Empire and later the League of Nations, those properties enjoyed a special legal and tax status--which became unclear once the state of Israel was created. In a paper on the first five years of the accord, Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department for Interreligious Affairs, says normalizing the legal standing of church personnel and institutions are complex matters (WordDoc). "The Holy See would have liked to have been considered as an extra territorial entity, enjoying the same privileges granted to foreign delegations and their properties," Rosen contends. "Aside from the principle, to have done so for the Catholic community without doing so for other Christian denominations would have posed substantial difficulties for Israel."

Dealing with the Holocaust

Vatican-Israel relations suffered recent setbacks on two issues regarding the Holocaust. The first issue and most sensitive is determining and qualifying the actions of Pope Pius XII, first as the Vatican’s secretary of state and later as pope. To many Jews, Pope Pius arguably had the ability to intervene in the Nazi’s extermination program but did not. Within the church, however, Pius was considered a visionary, a reformer, and a canny diplomat. In 1958, a TIME magazine obituary argued that "whatever future learned tribunals may decide about his saintliness, millions who saw him or heard his words will require no visions, no miracles beyond the fact that Pius XII was able to make a tormented world feel ’the attraction of Christian goodness.’" His lack of specific mention of the plight of Jews is often argued as a calculation to prevent a Nazi backlash against Catholics or the Vatican itself. Some historians point out the rise of anti-religious communism prompted Pius to make his condemnations broader to encompass persecuted groups across Europe. Records also show Pius took a number of steps to help Jews during the war, including hiding Italian Jews at his summer estate. The church has published nearly a dozen volumes on actions by the Holy See during the war compiled by church historians, but Jewish historians would prefer access to the original documents.

The debate has become more contentious since the Vatican began steps toward canonization. In 2008, Pope Benedict called for Pius’s beatification, which is the last step before sainthood. Cohen doubts there is "a smoking gun" in the church’s archives, but questions the need for making Pius XII a saint before the issue is determined. The subject is causing a stir in Israel. Pope Benedict has refused to tour the inside of Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, unless an exhibit depicting Pope Pius as a silent bystander during the war is removed.

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In January 2009, as part of a move to heal a rift within the church, Pope Benedict began steps to rescind the excommunication of a number of bishops, among them Bishop Richard Williamson, who questioned the details of the Holocaust. The move set off a firestorm of criticism and Israel’s chief rabbinate, the highest religious authority in the country, briefly cut off relations with the Vatican. Ruth Langer, associate director of Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, says the Vatican move was interpreted in some quarters as a Holocaust denier being told "oh, you’re okay." However, experts note that even if the Vatican did not understand how its actions would be originally perceived, its response to the controversy helped to smooth over relations.

Pope Benedict’s speech at Yad Vashem during his May 2009 Middle East trip may have been a missed opportunity to further heal feelings on the Holocaust. His speech was criticized for failing to specifically mention Germans or Nazis (Jerusalem Post) and for not offering another apology from the church, which critics say could have been particularly powerful coming from a German pope.

Israel-Palestine Relations

Since Pope John Paul’s visit in 2000, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has experienced disruptions triggered by violence and electoral developments. In that period, Israel has staged major military incursions into the West Bank and Gaza in response to Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets, most recently mounting an offensive against Hamas forces in Gaza in December 2008.

The Israeli government also began building a wall in 2002 to block incursions from the Palestinian territories, including cutting off the town of Bethlehem, which Christians hold is the birthplace of Jesus. In the mid-1990s, Christians accounted for about 95 percent of Bethlehem, but this percentage had fallen to less than one-third by 2006 and reports show their numbers continue to drop. Experts say the flight of Christians from the Holy Land is very concerning to the Vatican.

Massa, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says the church comes from a "unique position" when dealing with the Israel-Palestinian issue and the two sides need to figure out what role the church can play in mediating the conflict. While the Vatican recognizes Israel, it also supports Palestinian demands for a homeland. Israelis generally view the papacy as being too pro-Palestinian, and the Vatican and Israel continue to have periods of uneasy relations on the issue (about 9 percent of Palestinians are Christian). In early 2009, a senior Vatican official characterized Israel’s December 2008 campaign in the Gaza Strip as a "big concentration camp," and the pope in 2006 omitted Israel from a list of countries struck by terrorist attacks.

The Vatican also has had to maneuver though Palestinian politics. Militant group Hamas was the winner of Palestinian general elections in early 2006 but split with the Palestinian Fatah faction later that year. Hamas, which refuses to recognize the state of Israel, seized control of Gaza while Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas set up a government that controls the West Bank. The Vatican has continued to deal with the Abbas side (CNS) of the Palestinian Authority.

Jerusalem and the region’s holy sites are also unresolved issues. The Vatican in the past supported making Jerusalem and towns such as nearby Bethlehem a corpus separatum, an international city controlled by the UN under Resolution 181. However, that plan was rejected. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, during which the entire city came under control of Israel, Jerusalem was declared the country’s capital. Palestinians and the international community have never recognized the Israeli claim on East Jerusalem, which remains largely Arab and is considered by Palestinians to be their capital. More recently, particularly following a 2002 battle between Palestinians and the Israeli army that damaged the Church of the Nativity, the Vatican has renewed calls for an international agreement to protect holy sites.


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