Burdened by centuries of antagonistic Catholic-Jewish history reaching back to since before the 1948 establishment of the state of Israel, the road to Vatican-Israeli relations has been rocky.

Still, as Pope Benedict XVI prepares for his first papal visit to the Holy Land on May 8-15, there are signs that Catholic-Jewish relations continue to get closer, despite some recent bumps.

Fundamental changes

The complex and difficult relationship has seen the Catholic Church move from the Crusades and Inquisition to the establishment of full diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, signing the historic Fundamental Agreement with Israel in December 1993. Observers note that the agreement extended the theological advances of Nostra Aetate -- the 1965 Second Vatican Council declaration on the Church's relationships with non-Christian religions that condemns anti-Semitism and forbids blaming Jews for the death of Jesus -- into the political arena, taking a historic step forward in the evolution of the Catholic Church's attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish people.

The relationship between the two entities is not only entangled in theological and historical questions, but also with political and strategic considerations in a volatile region where the surrounding Arab countries view Israel with enmity, Palestinians and Israeli claim sovereignty over the city of Jerusalem as their capital and an embattled and diminishing Christian community is struggling for survival.

Though signed almost 15 years ago, aspects of the Fundamental Agreement have yet to be implemented, frustrating some in the Vatican. It took much longer than the two years agreed upon in the Fundamental Agreement to complete a juridical agreement and the fiscal arrangement is still being negotiated, though advances have been made under Pope Benedict.

Political changes

Changes in political leadership after several Israeli elections have contributed to the delays, as has the political reality of the Holy Land that has seen the assassination of an Israeli prime minister, the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, the second Lebanon War and, more recently, this winter's war in Gaza since the signing of the agreement with the Vatican.

In addition, Israel feels it must deal with economic issues cautiously as any precedents it sets with the Catholic Church could also be claimed not only by other Christian denominations, but also by the institutions of the larger Muslim and Jewish populations demanding equal economic privileges.

Some analysts point out that in its dealing with Israel, the Vatican also must take into account the position of the Catholic communities in the region vis-a-vis the majority Muslim community.

The Vatican also signed an agreement with the Palestinian Authority in 2000 dealing with the freedom of religion, preservation of the status quo of holy places and the legal standing of the Catholic Church in the Palestinian Territories.

Recent complications

Relations with a Vatican led by Pope John Paul II were seen relatively favorably by most Israelis because of the many reconciliatory steps he took toward Judaism and Israel -- including the first visit of a pope to the Great Synagogue in Rome in 1986, which opened a new era in Vatican-Israel relations. Having grown up with Jewish friends in his Polish village, he was also an outspoken critic of anti-Semitism and Nazism.

Pope John Paul's historic apology at the Western Wall during his 2000 visit to the Holy Land for sins of Catholics against Jews, and his reference to Jews as the "elder brothers" of Christianity also won him a warm place in the hearts of many Jews and Israelis.

In contrast, Pope Benedict's papacy is viewed with more suspicions in Israel, because of his German heritage, his involuntary connection to the Nazi youth movement and his decision earlier this year to lift the 20-year-old excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including a Holocaust denier. The bishops' reinstatement caused the Israeli Chief Rabbinate to postpone the joint commission's planned meeting in March, although after the pope publicly affirmed the obligation of Catholics to recognize and remember the Holocaust, the rabbis rescheduled the dialogue.

Further complicating matters was the fact that, during the Gaza war, Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, compared the conditions in Gaza to a concentration camp, which upset many in Israel.

The swearing in of a new right-wing Israeli government also brings with it an increase in concern for the Vatican in terms of visa and residency permits for clergy -- especially those from Arab countries. The religious Shas party has once again been given the Ministry of Interior. When it previously held the portfolio Shas placed impediments in obtaining visas that have not been removed, despite attempts to alleviate the conflict.

Signs of hope

Still, Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee's Department for Interreligious Affairs said Pope Benedict is coming at a time "when (Catholic-Jewish) relations have never been closer" regardless of any attempts by "less responsible media outlets" to put a different spin on it.

Indeed, in a recent survey conducted by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, although respondents seemed divided on the question of whether the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Jews was negative or positive -- 58 percent of the respondents said they believed that the Catholic Church's relations to the Jewish people had improved in the past 50 years.

Papal visits to Holy Land

1964: Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit the Holy Land during a Jan. 4-6 visit, touring Christian sites, including the Church of the Annunciation and the shore of the Sea of Galilee; celebrating Mass in Bethlehem; and meeting Israeli President Zalman Shazar at Megiddo, in northern Israel. After his visit, the pontiff initiated the establishment of Bethlehem University.

2000: During the Church's 2,000th jubilee celebration, Pope John Paul II visited many of the same Holy Land sites that Pope Benedict will tour this month, including the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. Perhaps most memorably, he prayed at the Western Wall, placing a written prayer expressing sadness for all the wrongs done to Jews by Christians. It stated: "God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your name to the nations: We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant."

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.