ROME — Israel and the Vatican are locking horns regarding Israel's attempts to block the nomination of a Palestinian refugee as the new archbishop of Galilee.
The conflict represents what could be the most serious friction between the Vatican and Israel since the two states established full diplomatic relations in 1994.
The clash comes less than two years before the millennium year 2000, when Pope John Paul II has said he would like to visit Israel as part of a pilgrimage to biblical sites in the Holy Land.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quoted last week as admitting that he had tried to block the appointment of Bishop Boutros Mouallem, a Palestinian refugee living in Brazil, as bishop of Galilee.
"I discussed the nomination with the Vatican's representative in Israel, and expressed my concern regarding the politicization of nominations of the church," Netanyahu said.
He accused the Vatican of having acceded to political pressure from the Palestine Liberation Organization in appointing Mouallem as Galilee bishop of the Greek Catholic Church, an Eastern-rite branch of Catholicism that is loyal to Rome.
"We think there shouldn't be any politicization of the choices of emissaries on the part of the church," he told reporters.
The Vatican responded last Friday with a brief statement denying any pressure and reiterating that, under an agreement between Israel and the Holy See, "The appointment of bishops in the Catholic Church is the reserve of the Pope in the exercise of his supreme power, and in the nomination of His Excellency Mouallem, the Synod of the Greek Catholic Church carried out its duties free from any external pressures."
It said, "The fundamental accord existing between the Holy See and the State of Israel" provides for the "autonomy of the Church and state, each in its own sphere."
In an interview with the Rome newspaper La Repubblica, Cardinal Luidi Poggi called Netanyahu's reaction "incomprehensible."
Meanwhile, in a move that could be related to its conflict with Israel over Mouallem's appointment, the Vatican's observer mission to the United Nations in New York released a document last week stating that plans to expand Jerusalem's municipal jurisdiction are "causing great disquiet."
Expressing support for the U.N. Security Council's decision to criticize such plans, the statement said such a move "certainly does not favor a dialogue aimed at a solution of the problem of the Holy City."