Behind the Headlines: Progress Reported in Resolving Convent Issue, Split from Ijcic

The controversy over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz has dropped from the headlines over the past several weeks, but those in contact with the Catholic Church and the Polish government say they are confident that progress toward its relocation is continuing.

Seymour Reich, who serves as chairman of IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said he anticipates that the issue may be resolved by the end of this year.

Though Reich and others know that completing construction of a new convent and interreligious center away from the site of the former death camp is a goal that looms far in the future, they believe the Carmelite nuns will be moved from the current building to temporary quarters shortly.

Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, recently reported after a trip to Poland that a number of the nuns had already moved.

The present time is being described as a period of breathing space for both Jews and Catholics, following the heated exchanges of August and September, when the conflict reached its boiling point.

Jewish groups at that time were furious over the stated refusal of Polish Catholic officials to honor their agreement to move the convent, comments by Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp perceived to be anti-Semitic, and the Vatican’s silence on the entire issue.

CONCERN ABOUT CHANGES IN POLAND

The situation was defused with a statement from the Vatican on Sept. 19 supporting the agreement to move the convent and build an interreligious center, and a subsequent turnaround on the part of the Polish Catholics.

Another reason for the quiet regarding the convent is Jewish uncertainty over the changes taking place in the Polish government, as the grip of the Communist party loosens.

Rabbi A. James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, who returned from Poland last week, observed that the country is now at an important crossroads.

A current overriding concern for Jews, he said, is whether the emerging nationalism in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe will bring with it the resurrection of the region’s traditional anti-Semitism.

Parallel to the uncertainty about nationalism are doubts about the renewed influence of the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe.

With the resurgence of the church’s power, Rudin said, he is concerned about whether the theology of the newly strengthened Catholic Church will be “pre-Vatican II or post-Vatican II.”

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, which took place from 1962 to 1965, it was commonly taught in the Catholic Church that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus and that Judaism was essentially a heretical religion.

The document that emerged from the council formally stated a more tolerant view of Judaism by the church.

As Jews begin to heal the rifts with Catholics, there also seems to be movement toward reconciliation within the Jewish community, as organizations work to resolve conflicts that were intensified by the convent controversy.

CONSENSUS VS. PLURALISM

Leaders of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith met with Reich on Oct. 25 to explore the possibility of the three organizations becoming part of IJCIC.

In early September, in the midst of the heat of the convent controversy, AJCommittee pulled out of IJCIC and joined forces with ADL, which left IJCIC four years ago, and AJCongress to form an alternative organization.

The new umberlla group, the Jewish Council for International Interreligious Relations, has essentially the same mandate as IJCIC: to deal with the Vatican and other international religious bodies on behalf of Judaism, in the interest of promoting stronger interreligious relations.

The split in IJCIC and the formation of an alternative group stemmed, in part, from disagreements between hard-line and more conciliatory elements within the Jewish community over the best approach for dealing with the convent issue.

But it also involved the desire of some Jewish groups to have a more open exchange with the Vatican on matters of religious doctrine, a direction strongly opposed by Orthodox elements in IJCIC.

The meeting Wednesday left Reich optimistic about the prospects of ironing out these differences and convincing the three groups that formed the Jewish Council to join IJCIC.

“I think we will be able to resolve any nuances that might be necessary in order to unite the Jewish community under one umbrella again,” Reich said.

But members of the groups Reich is trying to woo said his optimism may be premature.

“I think some real issues regarding dealing with Christians have to be resolved,” said Judith Banki, associate director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

Banki said that while uniting the groups under a common banner and one voice is a “desirable goal,” there has to be “some reflection of the reality of the pluralism of the Jewish community.”

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