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French Cardinal to Help Fund Auschwitz Interreligious Center

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France’s highest ranking Catholic prelate said he would use a $35,000 human rights award to help establish an interreligious center at the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

Cardinal Albert Decourtray, a noted friend of Israel and Jews, was awarded the French government’s first “prize for the defense of human rights” Wednesday, which included the funds.

The award was announced a day after Decourtray publicly expressed his “sympathy to the Palestinian people” and support of “their right to a country of their own.”

He made his declaration in a letter to the newly appointed Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Msgr. Michel Sabbah, an Arab. Decourtray explained Wednesday that it was based on “the concept of human rights in our civilization (which) is part of the Jewish-Christian tradition and common to both faiths.”

The statement of sympathy for Palestinian aspirations had a powerful effect on Jews and non-Jews, not only because France is 90 percent Catholic, but because Decourtray represents the strongest pro-Jewish, pro-Israel trend within the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy.

His sensitivity to Jewish concerns was demonstrated when he headed the Catholic delegation at two Jewish-Catholic meetings in Geneva last year on the issue of a Carmelite convent at Auschwitz. Jewish delegates to what became known as the “Auschwitz Conference” stressed that the cardinal was “highly sensitive to our feelings and receptive to our arguments.”

Decourtray’s intervention is credited for the Vatican’s decision to remove the convent in recognition that the Jewish people were overwhelmingly the victims of the Nazi death machine at Auschwitz and that the camp site must remain forever linked to Jewish martyrdom.

Decourtray, a former archbishop of Lyon, is president of the French Catholic Episcopalian Conference and as such is titular head of the church in France. He has considerable influence in Vatican circles.

He was the only top-ranking Catholic cleric to openly express “reservations” over Pope John Paul II’s meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim at the Vatican last June because of Waldheim’s revealed Nazi past.

During the trial in Lyon last year of Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie, Decourtray was the first visitor to the Jewish memorial for Holocaust victims erected near the courthouse. French Jewish leaders who know the cardinal well have always found him “personally involved with the Jewish people and highly sensitive to Jewish sensibilities and the aftermath of the Holocaust.”

His letter to Sabbah supported both a Jewish nation and the right of the Palestinians to their own. He said “moderation and tolerances” are required in seeking a solution, not the recent unrest in the administered territories.

Copies of the cardinal’s letter are being distributed to all sees and parishes in France, the Catholic newspaper La Croix reported, and will be read as part of sermons in many churches this Sunday.

Meanwhile, the Council of the French Protestant Federation, representing most of France’s 800,000 Protestants, released a statement backing “the right of both peoples (Israelis and Palestinians) to live within their own independent countries.”

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