Vatican Praised for Offer to Help Relocate the Convent at Auschwitz

A ray of hope broke through the clouds surrounding Catholic-Jewish relations Tuesday, as Jewish leaders warmly praised the Vatican’s public endorsement of the 1987 accord calling for the relocation of the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.

The were particularly pleased by the Vatican’s offer to contribute funds to establish an interfaith center away from the grounds of the former death camp, where the Carmelite nuns are to be relocated.

Those who had urged a freeze in relations with the Vatican until the issue was resolved called Tuesday for a restoration of formal talks with the Catholic Church.

Relations between Jews and the church have deteriorated since Feb. 22, the date by which the convent was to have been moved. The deadline, specified in the 1987 accord, passed with little sign of progress in relocating the convent.

Jewish leaders had repeatedly called for Pope John Paul II to state his support for the 1987 agreement. which was signed in Geneva by nine world Jewish leaders and nine representatives of the Catholic Church, including four European cardinals.

But for more than a year, the Vatican remained silent on the matter, apparently deferring to the Catholic Church in Poland, which the pope formerly headed.

That silence was broken Tuesday, when Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations With Judaism, issued a statement offering to contribute financially to the construction of the interfaith center.

“The Holy See is convinced that such a center would contribute in a significant manner to the development of good relations between Christians and Jews,” the statement read.

“In order to support the realization of this important but costly project, the Holy See is prepared to make its own financial contribution,” it said.

END TO FREEZE ON DIALOGUE URGED

Responding to the statement, World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman recommended “that the freeze be lifted in the formal dialogue with the Vatican that was instituted in February at the time of the failure to carry out the Geneva agreement on removal of the convent at Auschwitz.”

He made his recommendation to his group and to IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee for Interfaith Consultations, which was formed 25 years to ago to talk with the Vatican.

On Tuesday, Seymour Reich, the newly elected chairman of IJCIC, called the Vatican statement “a heartening development.”

Reich, who is president of B’nai B’rith International, said that now “the way will be clear for a resumption of the dialogue that, following the issuance of Nostra Aetate, marked a historic watershed in the 2,000-year relationship between the Catholic and Jewish communities.”

Rabbi Jack Bemporad, chairman of the interreligious committee of the Synagogue Council of America, an IJCIC member group, said, “This means that the two decades of close relations between IJCIC and the Vatican commission can continue.”

He said the two sides would discuss such questions as anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, racism and human rights.

JEWISH LEADER GOES TO VATICAN

Tensions in the past few months over the convent mounted not only between Catholics and Jews, but within the Jewish community as well. Last week, three American Jewish groups formed an alternative entity, the Jewish Council for International Interreligious Relations, to conduct dialogue with the Vatican.

That group, comprising the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, dispatched its own emissary to the Vatican on Sunday.

The representative, Rabbi A. James Rudin, who is AJCommittee’s director of interfaith relations, said in a telephone interview from Rome that he met Tuesday with Willebrands and others at the Vatican.

He was buoyed by his talks and by Tuesday’s statement, which he said “puts the Vatican firmly and publicly in favor of building the interreligious center. It is more than rhetoric.”

The Vatican move drew praise from several other American Jewish leaders and from officials of B’nai Brith Canada. It was also received with cautious optimism in Brussels by Markus Pardes, one of the Jewish leaders who signed the Geneva accord.

In Los Angeles, the Simon Wiesenthal Center issued a statement saying that the Vatican declaration “removes a major stumbling block in Catholic-Jewish relations.”

But the center’s dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said there is need for additional discussion with church leaders over “the de-Judaization of the camps and the failure of the Polish Church to comprehend the uniqueness of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.”

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