Pope’s Plan to Meet with Arafat on Friday Rankles Jewish Groups
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Pope’s Plan to Meet with Arafat on Friday Rankles Jewish Groups

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A meeting to take place Friday between Pope John Paul II and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat has already provoked anger and protest among Jewish groups here.

“Such a meeting raises the most profound concerns within the Jewish community worldwide and constitutes a serious setback to the cause of mutual understanding and respect,” the main Jewish group dealing with the Vatican said in a letter of protest to Archbishop Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations With the Jews.

The letter was signed by Seymour Reich, who chairs IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations. The umbrella group represents B’nai B’rith International, the Synagogue Council of America, the World Jewish Congress and the Israel Interfaith Center.

The meeting, which will be the pope’s third with Arafat, is viewed as “compromising the moral stature of the pope,” Reich said in the letter.

The PLO remains “a terrorist organization that has not yet rescinded its covenant calling for the destruction of Israel — that has tried to block Soviet Jews from coming to Israel and has threatened those countries whose airlines arc cooperating in the airlift of Soviet Jewish to Israel,” Reich contended in a statement accompanying the letter.

IJCIC leaders are particularly miffed that they were not informed of the meeting from the Vatican and instead learned about it from reports in the news media.

After the pope’s controversial meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim in June 1987, the Vatican agreed to cooperate with the Jewish leaders to avoid such surprises and misunderstandings.

The Vatican’s failure this time to give advance warning of the Arafat meeting is viewed by IJCIC “as not only substantively harmful to the cause of dialogue, but wholly inconsistent with the agreed-upon procedural mechanism designed to avoid such tensions,” the group said in its letter.


The strain over the Arafat visit comes just as Catholic-Jewish wounds were healing over the presence of a group of Carmelite nuns on the grounds of the former Auschwitz death camp. Construction has begun on an interfaith prayer and education center away from the camp, where the nuns will be relocated.

With that issue resolved, IJCIC had been planning two meetings with the Vatican in the autumn, including its first full-scale consultation with the Commission on Religious Relations With the Jews since 1985.

On March 18, the pope held an audience with a delegation from the American Jewish Committee, the first Jewish group to meet with him since the convent flap.

“Clearly, the papal audience for the American Jewish Committee was a setup to blind-side us with the Arafat meeting,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.

But Rabbi A. James Rudin, AJCommittee’s director of interreligious affairs, said he “refused to accept” Steinberg’s suggestion. On the contrary, Rudin said that he was glad his delegation got the chance to meet with the pope before his meeting with Arafat.

“I think it would have been worse if he met with Arafat and we had not met with him March 18 and stressed the need for full Vatican-Israel relations,” Rudin said.

The Vatican has never recognized or had diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.


Rudin said that the content of the Arafat meeting would be more pivotal than the fact that the encounter was taking place. He said the meeting itself is difficult to protest when so many nations, including the U.S. government, now speak to the PLO.

But he said he hoped it would be made clear that the meeting is “a pastoral visit only and not taken as accepting politics or methods of the PLO.”

Rudin added that the pope should reiterate to the PLO leader what he had told the AJCom-mittee delegation and other Jewish groups: that he believes Israel is a legitimate “member of the international family of nations.”

A coalition of student groups, organized by the North American Jewish Students Network, plans to protest the pope’s meeting with Arafat in a demonstration Thursday in front of the Vatican mission to the United Nations.

Jacob Davidson, president of the North American Jewish Students Network, said that he had requested a meeting with a Vatican representative to register his protest personally, but had been turned down.

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