Israel's President Moshe Katsav formally invited
Pope Benedict XVI to visit the Jewish State during an audience with the pontiff at the
Benedict received Katsav in a private audience lasting 25 minutes, after which the Israeli president, on a two-day visit to Italy and the Vatican, had talks with Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
Katsav told journalists later that the pope "welcomed positively" the invitation but that no date had been fixed. "For my part, I hope it will be next year," the president said.
Diplomatic sources said however that the Vatican had set firm pre-conditions for such a visit. The Vatican wants decade-long negotiations over the legal and financial status of the Roman Catholic Church in Israel to be concluded before Benedict sets foot in Israel, the sources said.
Talks have stalled on the unconcluded Fundamental Agreement to underpin their relations since Israel and the Holy See established formal diplomatic ties in June 1994.
In a strongly worded letter earlier this year, the US Bishops' Conference accused Israel of being "hesitant and fitful" in its conduct of negotiations on the Fundamental Agreement.
The talks appear to have stumbled on the Church's demand for tax exemptions and guaranteed access to the courts in disputes over religious property.
"We have agreed to accelerate the discussions," Katsav told a news conference following his meeting with Benedict, which he described as "cordial and warm."
Asked by an Israeli journalist if he had asked the pope to condemn Palestinian terrorism, Katsav replied that "the pope himself began our meeting with a declaration condemning terrorism and anti-Semitism."
In an exchange of gifts which is traditional at such meetings, the pope presented Katsav with a framed copy of the 1965 document "Nostra Aetate," in which the Vatican recognized the legitimacy of the Jewish religion for the first time.
Katsav gave the pope a fragment of papyrus manuscript in ancient Hebrew as well as books in German and English and photographs.
The visit is seen as an important step in fostering smoother relations between the Church and Israel.
The late John Paul II made a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2000 and prayed at Judaism's Holy Wall in Jerusalem.
His successor has repeatedly said he wants to use his pontificate to foster closer ties with Jews and Muslims, and became only the second pope, after John Paul II, to visit a synagogue during a visit to Colonge in August.