Behind the Headlines Vatican-israel Relations on a Roller-coaster
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Behind the Headlines Vatican-israel Relations on a Roller-coaster

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Fasten your ecumenical seat-belts. The latest cycle of Vatican-Israeli diplomatic relations has again become a roller-coaster and for the months ahead, it now appears the ride will be bumpy and probably rough.

For nearly a year, a number of influential Catholic cardinals in the United States, Europe, and Latin America began making public statements indicating that “there was something new in the air in the Vatican” about movement toward establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. A distinguished and knowledgeable Israeli diplomat confirmed those reports of some positive new attitudes in Rome toward Jerusalem.

During three years of off-the-record meetings between representatives of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) and key authorities of the Vatican Secretariat of State, several concrete proposals were discussed as possible interim steps that could culminate in full-scale diplomatic ties between the Holy See and the Jewish State.

The two most likely models examined were the American model of an Apostolic Delegate becoming a Papal Nunico, and the Polish Working Group of the Holy See that relates politically to the Polish Communist government.


Then, suddenly within the past two months, the momentum seemed to reverse. John Cardinal O’Connor, the popular Archbishop of New York and demonstrated friend of the Jewish people, went to Lebanon and made a number of statements that seemed both to signal and confirm this shift. Both publicly as well as in private conversations with this writer, Cardinal O’Connor said that he favored Vatican diplomatic ties with Israel but there were preconditions:

Israel should “assist substantially” in finding “a Palestinian homeland.”

Israel should help achieve peace in Lebanon.

And, most strangely, Israel should help bring about the security of some eight million Christians in Arab countries.

Not a word was addressed by O’Connor directly nor explicitly to Syria, the Shiite and Sunni Moslems in Lebanon, Iran, nor Libya–all of whom have been active in destabilizing Lebanon and in massacring Christians for their own fanatic purposes of converting the Middle East to an Arab-Muslim hegemony.

(Ironically, a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor John Esseff, the former American director of the Pontifical Mission in Beirut, in a telling interview published in the Australian, May 6, gave eloquent personal testimony to that brutal fact: “He said Iran, Syria, and Libya’s support for extreme, radical groups such as the Hezbollah–widely believed to be responsible for the blowing up of the American Embassy and compound in 1983–the fanatical anti-Western organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the various PLO factions were the major reasons for Lebanon’s momentous tragedy… These outside-controlled, radical, anti-Western Muslim groups (were) leading to the genocide of the Lebanese people.”)

Then on July 7, the National Catholic News Service reported that Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote a letter to President Reagan urging him “to convince the Senate to drop legislation that could force the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.” He referred to an amendment proposed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R. N. C.) on the Embassy transfer.

Bishop Malone, who has also been a forthright friend of American Jews, termed the Helms amendment “very dangerous” and said that “Our position, then as now, has been guided by the overall position of the Holy See on Jerusalem.”

How does one explain that sudden toughening of the Vatican line towards Israel after all the soft music that began to build up publicly during the past year–topped by Pope John Paul’s historic visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome last April?


There will be undoubtedly many explanations in the weeks ahead, but the most convincing was given to me by an informed observer of the Middle East and the Vatican last week. I was told by an unimpeachable source that during the past two months a high Vatican official went on a mission to Lebanon and Syria seeking to bring an end to the massacre of Christians in Lebanon and contain the brutal civil war with Moslems and Druze.

During the meetings in Damascus, a Syrian Foreign Ministry official is reported to have read the riot act to the Vatican emissary, telling him that any move toward Vatican-Israeli diplomatic relations would result in massive and bloody reprisals against Christians not only in Lebanon but throughout the Arab world.

The Vatican emissary returned to Rome shocked and frightened by the Syrian threats. And then, my informant told me, the emissary ordered his associates to put the issue of Vatican-Israeli ties “on the back burner.”

Clearly, one hears echoes of that Syrian intimidation in the one-sided imbalances found in Cardinal O’Connor’s recent statements.

The crucial issue, it seems to me, that now has to be faced by the Vatican, as well as by Catholic and Jewish leaders, is whether capitulation to Arab blackmail and threats has shown itself to be truly wise and effective.

The United States and Israel have repeatedly called the bluff of Arab fanatics with certain positive results. The Vatican could surely win the backing of the United States, Western European powers, and predominantly Catholic countries in Latin America if it would show strength and firmness. Weakness is a sure invitation to further reprisals and loss of lives.

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