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Controversy Flares over New York Archbishop’s Visit to the Mideast

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A diplomatic controversy has flared over New York Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor’s visit this week to the Middle East. He is in Jordan on an official visit meeting with King Hussein, but his visit to Israel is a private one. The Vatican and Israel have no diplomatic relations.

Last-minute changes in O’Connor’s itinerary in Jerusalem, which appear to shun any official contacts, have dampened enthusiasm for the Catholic leader’s scheduled arrival Thursday.

O’Connor will not meet with Israel’s President Chaim Herzog, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek in their offices but has asked to meet with them privately in their homes, according to reports over the weekend.

Israeli leaders said Sunday they will not meet O’Connor if he insists on seeing them outside of their offices.

He also declined a tour of Christian holy places in Jerusalem with Kollek, designed to show the Cardinal investments the city has made in restoring and preserving such sites, the reports said. The changes are apparently designed in part to avoid recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

DELICATE RELATIONS DISRUPTED

Officially, O’Connor claimed he had to cut short his visit because he was scheduled to be in Rome January 6 to attend the appointment of a new Auxiliary Bishop for New York, William McCormack.

The scheduled changes have disrupted the delicate relations between Jerusalem and the Archbishop, who first prompted an official invitation to visit Israel after making statements last summer in the press sympathetic to Palestinian nationalism.

“Somehow, a homeland has to be provided for the Palestinian peoples,” O’Connor told a New York Times reporter upon his arrival in Rome in June. “But from a moral perspective, those people have to be given a homeland. Otherwise everything spills over into every area and that has to result in a very volatile situation. So I think that’s imperative.”

In efforts to show O’Connor the problem from an Israeli perspective, Peres, who was then Prime Minister, extended a personal invitation to O’Connor when the two met in New York in October.

Now, some Israeli and American Jewish officials say, it might have been better to cancel the visit rather than face a diplomatic controversy over O’Connor avoiding official contacts.

REACTIONS BY U.S. JEWISH LEADERS

Meanwhile, officials here and in Israel have been careful not to criticize O’Connor, saying the changes were directed by the Vatican in Rome.

Rabbi Ronald Sobel of Temple Emanu-El, a friend of O’Connor’s, said that although O’Connor would not be going to Israel as an official envoy of the Vatican, there was much hope of improving relations between Israel and the Holy See.

“These latest events lead one to sadly conclude that perhaps it would have been better had the trip not been planned at all at this time,” Sobel said.

Nathan Perlmutter, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, agreed that O’Connor would have been better off to not have scheduled his visit under these circumstances.

“The Vatican has embarrassed John Cardinal O’Connor and itself more than it embarrasses Israel. The Vatican’s long-expressed and genuine concern with theological anti-Semitism is welcome. But its concern is compromised by this kind of cynical, political gamesmanship,” Perlmutter said.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said it was disappointing that O’Connor would snub Israeli leaders immediately following an official reception by Jordan’s King Hussein.

A OUESTION OF EQUAL TREATMENT

Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International, said, “It is a simple question of equal treatment. If the Vatican permits Cardinal O’Connor to be received by the King of Jordan I cannot see why he is apparently barred from calling on the President of Israel.”

Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said:

“We regard Cardinal O’Connor as a friend but Israel is right to expect that it be dealt with as any sovereign state should be. A prince of the church cannot make a private visit to Israel when he makes an official visit to Israel’s neighbor, Jordan. I still hope that an equitable solution can be found with good will so that Cardinal O’Connor’s visit to Israel will be a wholly successful one.”

O’Connor, who left New York Saturday for Amman, Jordan, arrived there Sunday. He will travel overland, crossing the Allen by Bridge to Israel on Thursday. He had to cancel a scheduled stop in Egypt for the ceremony in Rome.

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