During a press briefing on Pope Francis’ upcoming trip to the Holy Land, the Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See explained that the visit marks an important historical moment both spiritually and politically. “It will be another milestone of historical importance not only in the relations between Israel and the Holy See, but also between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people,” Dr. Zion Evrony observed in his May 13 address to diplomats and journalists. “All Israelis, regardless of their religious affiliation, are looking forward to greeting Pope Francis and his delegation with an open heart and most warmly. He will be an honored guest. He will be welcomed as a true friend of the Jewish people.” Dr. Evrony is the sixth Israeli ambassador to the Holy See following the initiation of diplomatic relations in 1994, and originally presented his credentials to retired pontiff Benedict XVI in 2012. Noting how he has already met with Pope Francis several times, Dr. Evrony revealed that each time he greets the pontiff with the common phrase “Shalom,” the Pope replies to him in Hebrew. Speaking to those present, the ambassador observed how Pope Francis’ visit to Israel will mark the fourth time a Roman Pontiff has visited the country, the first being Pope Paul VI in 1964 for an 11 hour visit, during which nothing of great political significance took place. Referring to the 2000 visit of Saint John Paul II was “groundbreaking” because historically for the first time it included “many official elements,” including a visit with the president, prime minister and chief rabbi, Dr. Evrony expressed that Pope Francis’ trip is will also be significant because it will be his first official papal voyage outside of Italy, since his visit to Rio for World Youth Day was arranged by his predecessor. He then called attention to how “Christians in Israel are equal citizens with full fights and are represented in the Israeli parliament and in all professions,” pointing out that it is the only country in the Middle East with a growing Christian population. “Its Christian community has increased from 34,000 in 1948 to 157,000 today” he observed, stating that this lies “in stark contrast to the condition of Christian communities in many places in the Middle East, where they are under constant attacks, persecuted and insecure.” The Israeli ambassador also took a moment to address recent acts of vandalism against Christian churches and objects, stressing that they are the actions “of a few extremists.” “They do not represent the policy of the government and the feelings of the majority of Israelis.” Noting that during his visit the Pope will walk along a path where Christians traditionally believe Jesus walked with Mary and where according to Jewish tradition kings and prophets lived, Dr. Evrony said that the visit will surely “contribute to the process of reconciliation, recognition and dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.” Reflecting on the immense progress Christians and Jews have made in the last 100 years in terms of dialogue and friendship, the ambassador described how this has been made possible “as a result of the confluence and interplay of theological and political changes.” One particular element which has helped to foster stronger relations was the 1965 publication of “Nostra Aetate,” which is the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions. “This document revolutionized the Catholics’ position — exonerating the Jewish people from the collective blame for Jesus’ death,” which had been a key point of contention between the two communities, he went on to say. Also assisting the growing relations is the Holy See’s “more pragmatic approach to the dialogue with Israel” in solving daily problems of Christians within the state following the Six-Day War, as well as a 1985 papal document in which the “State of Israel” was mentioned for the first time. It was through this document that “the historic religious bond between the Jewish people and Israel was recognized,” he explained. Observing how this year marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Israeli embassy to the Holy See as well as Pope Francis’ highly-anticipated visit, the ambassador noted that 2014 might also see the completion of the Economic Financial Agreement, which deals with property rights of religious sites as well as taxation. Explaining how the completion of this agreement would be yet another “milestone” in Jewish-Christian relations, Dr. Evrony made special mention that, contrary to rumors circulating around Israel, “there is no intention to transfer to the Vatican sovereignty or ownership on the tomb of David” or the Cenacle, which is the site of the Last Supper where Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. As to the future, the Israeli ambassador expressed that in addition to ironing out the final details of the financial agreement, there are other challenges which include the need “to further upgrade” and broaden political dialogue regarding “the fate of minorities in the Middle East, the rise of radical Islam, and Syria.” Continuing, he noted that another challenge is to “achieve stronger cooperation in combating anti-Semitism” through the creation of “a realistic, universal program of education” that is supported by both the Catholic and Jewish communities, as well as Israeli and Holy See embassies throughout the world. Quoting Pope Francis’ words against anti-Semitism, Dr. Evrony stated that “because of our common roots, a Christian cannot be anti-Semitic,” and urged that this message should be spread “to the furthest corners of the world.” Bringing his address to a close, the Israeli ambassador observed that there is also a need “to educate Jewish people on the new approach of the Catholic Church toward Judaism.” “Today’s relations between the state of Israel and the Holy See are based on mutual respect and dialogue” he said, adding that although certain challenges remain “significant progress” has been made, and “Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Israel will further strengthen these relations.” “I would like to take this opportunity to call on all Christians around the world to view the Pope’s visit as a message to all believers and an opportunity to follow his example on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.”