Auschwitz Convent Casts a Shadow over Interfaith Ceremony in Brazil

The issue of a Carmelite convent on the grounds of the former Auschwitz death camp cast a shadow over an interfaith ceremony here Sunday night at which a Catholic and a Jew were honored by the Brazilian Bishops Conference.

Dr. Gerhart Riegner of Geneva, co-chairman of the World Jewish Congress Executive, and Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, received the Patriarch Abraham awards.

They were presented by the Bishops Conference’s Commission for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, in recognition of the leaders’ lifelong devotion to strengthening relations between Catholics and Jews.

The presentation was made by Dr. Jihan Sadat, a prominent Moslem lay leader who is the widow of the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.

Riegner, in his remarks, urged the Bishops Conference to “use its influence in Rome and Krakow” to resolve “a serious conflict between the Jewish community and the Polish Church” over the convent.

He explained that its presence at a site of Jewish mass extermination “deeply hurts Jews everywhere” and, “because of the profound emotions it arouses, seriously risks affecting the future harmonious Catholic-Jewish dialogue.”

“We had thought that we had found a solution to the problem in the friendly talks in Geneva in February 1987,” Riegner said.

“But unfortunately, nothing has happened so far to implement those agreements.”

He was referring to an agreement four European cardinals signed with would Jewish leaders in Geneva on Feb. 22, 1987.

Under the agreement, the Catholic Church promised to relocate the convent within two years.

25 YEARS OF PROGRESS

The deadline expired in February. The convent remains on the site and a 24-foot-high cross has been erected there in recent months.

The WJC Executive urged Pope John Paul II last month to “exercise his authority to assure the removal of the convent from the grounds of Auschwitz without further delay.”

Willebrands described Riegner as “one of the main pillars” of Catholic-Jewish relations over the past 25 years.

He reviewed the background to the “great change in our attitudes toward one another” that took place after the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

He recalled that shortly afterward, the Vatican established an office for Jewish relations. Then, in 1974, it instituted a Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews, now headed by Willebrands.

In 1970, a permanent international liaison committee was created, with five Catholic members approved by the pope and five Jewish members representing the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.

Riegner was the first chairman of IJCIC.

In his speech accepting his a ward, the WJC official hailed the Brazilian Bishops Conference for condemning anti-Semitism, acknowledging “the continuing tradition of the Jewish people as a living community” and recognizing “the right of the Jews to a tranquil political existence in their country of origin.”

He noted that “for the Jewish people, these rights have become a reality in the existence of Israel.”

The Vatican does not have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

‘MODEL OF MUTUAL RECOGNITION’

The awards ceremony was organized and overseen by Rabbi Henry Sobel of Sao Paulo and Leonardo Martin, coordinator of the Commission for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue of the Bishops Conference.

Sobel, spiritual leader of Congregacao Israelita Paulista, which is the largest synagogue in all of Latin America, called the event a milestone in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations in Brazil.

He noted that Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world, with a population of 145 million, 90 percent of them Catholic. The Jewish population numbers about 150,000.

Despite this ratio of nearly 1,000 to 1, relations between Catholics and Jews in Brazil “are a model of mutual recognition and respect,” Sobel said.

“The experience of Catholics and Jews in Brazil, working together against PLO extremists on the left and incipient neo-Nazi groups on the right, offers a paradigm for joint action in the face of common concerns — and for building understanding of each other,” the Sao Paulo rabbi said.

In her keynote address after presenting the awards, Sadat spoke of Abraham as the father of the three faiths and gave an overview of Abraham in the Koran and Islamic literature.

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