JERUSALEM, Feb. 17--Israel has delivered an exceptionally sharp protest to a papal envoy over a Palestinian-Vatican agreement that criticized Israeli control of Jerusalem.

Eitan Bentsur, director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, held a one-hour "urgent" meeting with Monsignor Pietro Sambi and made what sources called the "strongest protest" that Israel has issued to the Vatican since diplomatic relations were established in 1994.

The diplomatic contretemps threatened to cast a pall over Pope John Paul's visit to the Holy Land March 20-26. However, Israel said the visit itself was not threatened.

The controversial agreement, signed Tuesday, described Israel's "unilateral decisions" over East Jerusalem as "morally and legally unacceptable."

The Palestinians regard East Jerusalem, captured by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, as the future capital of a Palestinian state.

But Israel maintains that an undivided Jerusalem must remain the capital of Israel.

The Vatican-PLO agreement also called for an internationally guaranteed special statute to safeguard "equality before the law of the three monotheistic religions" in Jerusalem.

In tough language, Bentsur told Sambi, the Vatican representative in Jerusalem, that the pope was "siding with unacceptable Palestinian demands" during sensitive negotiations to decide the future of the city, sources said.p> But Sambi insisted Israel had misinterpreted the agreement, which he claimed is "judicial and not political."

At the Vatican, chief papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the accord signed "has nothing to do with the peace process as such but regulates the presence and activity of the Catholic Church in the territories of the Palestinian Authority.

"This accord only repeats what has been established by the pertinent United Nations institutions and by recent agreements between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities," Navarro-Valls continued. "As regards the city of Jerusalem, the accord does not enter into territorial questions or questions of sovereignty regarding the two interested parties, Israeli and Palestinian.

"The text signed...in the Vatican refers to the universal religious and cultural dimension of the most sacred parts of the city, recognized by the international community," he said.

Sambi also reportedly told Bentsur that the Vatican had been urged to sign the agreement to protect the rights of Arab Christians, who have been suffering at the hands of Muslims and have been emigrating from Jerusalem.

But Bentsur replied that people of all religions are treated equally in the city, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

He also said the agreement contradicted previous agreements between Israel and the Vatican.

Israeli officials said they were surprised by the tough language and timing of the PLO agreement.

"Maybe the pope, who is aiming at reconciliation between Jews and Christians, was unknowingly led into a trap by (PLO Chairman Yasser) Arafat at the worst moment," a senior official said.

Israel is planning a major welcome for John Paul next month, with about 20,000 police and military officers assigned to the largest security operation ever mounted for a visiting dignitary.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres said the Jerusalem flap should not affect the papal visit.

"We shall receive the pope as a spiritual leader--one of the greatest spiritual leaders of our time," Peres said.

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