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VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope Benedict XVI met with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Thursday (Sept. 2), and called for the conclusion of long-running talks over the Catholic Church’s legal and tax status in Israel.
The two leaders met at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence outside Rome.

Among the topics of discussion, according to a Vatican statement released afterwards, were the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which began the same day in Washington, after a hiatus of more than a year and a half.

Peres and Benedict condemned “all forms of violence” and reaffirmed the “necessity of guaranteeing better conditions of life to all the peoples of the area,” the Vatican said.

According to Israeli press sources, citing a statement from Peres’ office, Benedict agreed to help seek the freedom of Israeli solider Gilad Shalit, who has been held prisoner by Palestinian forces in Gaza since 2006.

The men also discussed negotiations between the Holy See and Israel, over matters that remain unresolved more than 15 years after the two states established diplomatic relations in 1994.

The issues in those talks include complicated questions about the church’s tax and legal status in the Holy Land, along with its claims to a number of sacred sites such as the Holy Cenacle, considered the site of the Last Supper.

In unusually firm language for a diplomatic communique, the Vatican statement noted the “many years” of work by negotiators and called for a “rapid conclusion” of the process.

In his discussion with Peres, the Vatican said, Benedict stressed the role of Catholics in the Holy Land, particularly the “contribution which they offer for the common good of society, also through Catholic schools.”

The situation of Catholics in the Middle East will be a major topic of discussion at a special synod of bishops to be held at the Vatican next month.

Christians, who six decades ago accounted for 20 percent of the total population of Israel and Palestine, represent no more than 2 percent today, largely because of economically driven emigration.

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