NEW YORK (Aug. 23)
Vatican representatives and world Jewish leaders will gather in Prague next month for a landmark four-day conference on Catholic-Jewish concerns, including the Holocaust and the re-emergence of popular anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.
The conference, to be held Sept. 3 to 6, will be the first formal joint meeting since 1986 of the Vatican Secretariat on Religious Relations With the Jews and the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.
Relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community during the past four years have been rocked by tensions over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz and meetings that Pope John Paul II held with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim.
As a result of these controversies, IJCIC temporarily suspended formal meetings with the Vatican. But communication between Jewish leaders and the Vatican Secretariat was never completely broken off.
Presently, Jewish leaders involved in dialogue with the Vatican are particularly anxious to formally voice their growing concern that the death of Communist rule and the rebirth of democracy in Eastern Europe have seen a concurrent rise in popular anti-Semitism in that part of the world.
Jewish leaders believe the Catholic Church’s stance can play an important role in combatting this trend. Therefore, they are encouraging efforts to educate and sensitize clergy in Eastern Europe to their role in fighting anti-Semitism.
“This was one of the reasons we picked Prague for the conference,” said Seymour Reich, who currently chairs IJCIC.
LEGACY OF CHRISTIAN ANTI-SEMITISM
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a former IJCIC chairman and pioneer in Jewish-Vatican relations, explained that many of the Eastern European Catholic clergy “have no awareness of the deep sources of anti-Semitism in Christian tradition.”
He said that the conference would explore the roots of Christian anti-Semitism and examine how the church’s early demonization of Jews was appropriated and expanded by Adolf Hitler.
“If we are ever going to contain or even uproot the fervent anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, we have to help the key authorities in Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia that will be present at the conference to understand the magnitude of the hatred that was engendered by these teachings,” Tanenbaum said. “Only then can they can cope with contemporary anti-Semitism.”
Before the controversies disrupted Catholic-Jewish dialogue, a Vatican document containing a full-scale examination of the history of anti-Semitism in the church and its behavior during the Holocaust had been in the preliminary stages.
“This conference in Prague, if all goes well, could contribute to putting this project back on the track,” Tanenbaum said.
Sixty Catholic and Jewish representatives from around the world will be taking part in the conference, including representatives from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia.
Catholic representatives from the United States will include Archbishop William Keeler of Baltimore and Dr. Eugene Fisher, director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Representing the Vatican will be Archbishop Edward Cassidy, Bishop Pierre Duprey and Monsignor Francesco Fumagalli, respectively president, vice president and secretary of the Vatican Secretariat on Religious Relations With the Jews.
CONVENT ISSUE NOT ‘BEHIND US YET’
Also participating will be representatives of Jewish groups belonging to IJCIC, including the Synagogue Council of America, the World Jewish Congress, B’nai B’rith International and the Israel Interfaith Committee.
Reich said that he was pleased that contacts with the Vatican were getting “back on track” after the tension surrounding the issue of the Auschwitz convent.
Though the Carmelite nuns have not yet moved from the grounds of the former death camp, the Vatican has publicly stated its support for their relocation. Construction has begun on an interreligious center, to be located away from the grounds of Auschwitz, that will house the nuns.
Reich said an update on the progress on moving the nuns from the present convent will likely take place during the conference. “I don’t think the Auschwitz convent matter is behind us yet,” he said.