VATICAN CITY, DEC. 12, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Moshe Katsav became the first Israeli president to visit the Pope at the Vatican, and was told that the Holy Land will see peace if there is cooperation between Israel and Palestine.
Katsav also met with Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, and Monsignor Pietro Parolin, new undersecretary for relations with states.
During the meetings, the Vatican's position was explained again "to the illustrious guest," Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls said in a press statement. That position favors "the existence and collaboration between two states, Israel and Palestine, with the need to arrive at a rapid conclusion to the ongoing conflict."
Navarro-Valls said that John Paul II and his aides appealed to the Israeli president for "free access to Bethlehem, because of the forthcoming Christmas celebrations."
Reuters, relying on a statement issued by the Israeli Embassy to the Vatican, reported that Katsav promised the Pope that Israel's army would leave Bethlehem over Christmas if there were no "warnings of terror operations.''
Israeli troops reoccupied Palestinian-ruled Bethlehem three weeks ago following a suicide bombing that killed 11 Israelis on a Jerusalem bus, the news agency noted.
As Minister of Tourism, Katsav had visited John Paul II in 1998, when a number of Israeli officials were overseeing some preparations for the Jubilee year.
When the Pope visited the Holy Land in March 2000, Katsav was not yet president of Israel. He was elected by the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, the following July 31, defeating Shimon Peres.
John Paul II has received numerous Israeli heads of government and ministers, even before diplomatic relations were established between the Vatican and Israel on Dec. 30, 1993.
During today's meetings, Israeli-Vatican relations were analyzed. Special attention focused on "the opportunity to intensify collaboration in the cultural field," Navarro-Valls said.
Born in Iran in 1945, Katsav moved to Israel with his family at age 6. A militant of the nationalist Likud Party, he was elected deputy for the first time in 1977. He has held key posts within the Knesset and the government, including Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, and Minister for the Arab-Israeli minority.
As president, Katsav has shown an openness toward ethnic and religious
minorities, Vatican Radio said.