BRASILIA, Brazil (Aug. 11)
Characterizing the Bible as his “favorite constitution,” Elie Wiesel urged the Brazilian people to adopt a democratic constitution that would reflect scriptural values, including respect for human rights, concern for the poor and defenseless and an open door to those in need of refuge.
“Give a haven to those who feel alienated from their former world,” he said, adding: “A society is judged by its attitude towards strangers.”
Wiesel, here to receive the Grand Cross of the Order of the Southern Cross — highest civilian medal awarded by the Brazilian government — made his remarks Monday in an address to the Constitutional Congress, a joint assembly of legislators and government officials charged with creating a new constitution for the country, which is making the transition from military rule to democracy.
The award, presented by Abren Sodre, Brazil’s Foreign Minister, was given to Wiesel for his contributions to international peace. While in Brasilia, the country’s capital, the Nobel Peace Prize recipient also met Monday with Brazilian President Jose Sarney and other government officials and dignitaries.
Rabbi Henry Sobel, spiritual leader of the Congregacao Israelita Paulista in Sao Paulo, largest Jewish congregation in Latin America, is accompanying Wiesel during his three-day visit to Brazil. The Nobel laureate is a guest of the congregation and the Confederacao Israelita do Brasil, the central body of the Brazilian Jewish community, which is affiliated with the World Jewish Congress.
Sobel pointed out that Brazil was the “largest Catholic country in the world” — with some 117 million Catholics — and that leading Catholic prelates would be greeting the Nobel laureate. “Mr. Wiesel’s visit,” he said, “will strengthen efforts to build Catholic-Jewish understanding in Brazil and, because he is so identified with Israel, will also focus sympathetic attention on Israel’s role as a free and democratic nation in the Middle East.”
Earlier this year, a commission of 10 Catholic and Jewish leaders headed by Sobel issued a 187-page “Guide for a Catholic-Jewish dialogue in Brazil.”
In his address to the Constitutional Congress, Wiesel noted that “as a son of the Jewish people, I view Scripture as the most eloquent moral code of behavior for nations, groups and individuals alike.”
He said that as a Jew his experience made him aware of perils that could threaten any society as well as of “hopes that must be offered to any individual anywhere.” He urged the Brazilian leaders to view their projected constitution not as a contract but as a “covenant between government and the citizens.”
No people, he said, is superior or inferior to another and no nation is holier than another. “No religion,” he added, “is closer to truth or to God — the source of truth — than another.” Racism, Wiesel pointed out, “is sinful and ethnic discrimination outrageous.”
Praising Brazil as a nation that has been immune to racism, he also urged the rejection of religious fanaticism as a course that “leads to hate, not to salvation, just as political extremism begets hostility, not security.”
URGES SPEAKING UP FOR SOVIET JEWS
He also urged that the country speak up for Soviet Jews “whose only desire is to join their families in Israelâ€¦ Speak up for dissidents everywhere who use non-violent methods to obtain freedom for themselves and their friends,” Wiesel said. “Based on the moral imperatives that would be part of your constitution, adopt a policy of interference in other countries’ affairs when human rights are violated and when peace is in danger.”
Tuesday night Wiesel was scheduled to address Sobel’s congregation at the Sao Paulo synagogue. More than 5,000 persons, including government officials and Catholic Church dignitaries, are expected to attend.
Brazil’s 150,000 Jews make up the second largest Jewish community in Latin America. Only Argentina’s Jewish population is larger. In Brazil, relations between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church are marked by “theological and political sensitivity, commitment and vision,” according to Sobel.