Vatican presses for international oversight in Jerusalem

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican held to its own hard line Tuesday on the future of Jerusalem, insisting in talks with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that the city's warren of holy sites and religions needs international oversight.

Albright listened, but made clear the Vatican proposal for international stewardship of the holy sites had no takers at Camp David.

''Nobody wanted - I mean, at Camp David certainly the issue of internationalization was not the solution,'' Albright told a Rome news conference before talks at the Vatican.

Albright interrupted her trip home from an Asian tour to discuss the current status of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with her counterpart at the Vatican, where Pope John Paul II had watched - and spoken out on - the Camp David talks from afar.

The U.S.-brokered talks deadlocked on the crucial issue of Israel's and the Palestinians rival claims to Jerusalem as their capital. Palestinians, particularly, insisted on nothing less than full sovereignty over east Jerusalem, where a half-mile holds sites holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews.

With no direct say in the Israel-Palestinian negotiations, John Paul made his case before pilgrims in St. Peter's Square during the talks, urging all sides ''not to overlook the importance of the spiritual dimension of the city of Jerusalem.''

On Tuesday, the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, pressed the position John Paul laid out, saying a ''special statute, internationally guaranteed,'' is a ''necessity'' for the city's sacred places.

Tauran listed dialogue and respect for international decisions - particularly U.N. resolutions - as the other essentials for a ''just and lasting peace in that part of the world.''

One long-standing U.N. resolution demands Israel withdraw from territory occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.

Tauran himself has spoken of Israel ''illegally occupying'' east Jerusalem.

The Vatican over the years has taken up the cause of pilgrims, including Israeli security closures that Palestinian Muslims said denied them access to holy sites for months at a stretch.

Jews were blocked from the Western Wall under Jordan's control of east Jerusalem.

The Holy See also worries over the diminishing presence of Christians in Jerusalem.

John Paul's visit to the city - long delayed by Mideast conflicts - this year provided some of the most emotional moments of the 80-year-old pontiff's papacy.

That papacy has seen a half-dozen meetings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, starting in 1982, when Israel still was calling Arafat a terrorist.

John Paul's openness to Arafat and his support of a Palestinian homeland provided international credibility at a time when they badly needed it.

Any influence that built up with the Palestinians hasn't been enough so far to budge them on the essential issue of east Jerusalem.

''They were not interested in internationalization even though they called for an open city,'' Albright told reporters in Rome of the Palestinians.

Arafat has used the phrase ''open city'' to describe his plan for Jerusalem for years, one that would allow free movement for all in east Jerusalem under what he increasingly has made clear would be full Palestinian sovereignty

''Exactly like Rome is the capital of the Vatican and of Italy,'' Arafat said in Rome in 1996, on a trip to lobby Italy and the Vatican.

''The Jerusalem question could make the peace process fail - or become the symbol of peaceful coexistence among Muslims, Christians and Jews,'' Arafat said then.


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