Jews Encouraged by Session with Pope, but Disappointed over Stance on Israel
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Jews Encouraged by Session with Pope, but Disappointed over Stance on Israel

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An international Jewish delegation emerged from a nearly hour-long meeting Thursday with Pope John Paul II elated with the warm atmosphere if not entirely satisfied with the results.

The pope himself described the meeting with a 30-member delegation of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations as “very important.”

And Seymour Reich, chairman of the IJCIC delegation, called it “the beginning of a new chapter” in Catholic-Jewish relations.

He praised the pope’s warmth, as well as the “obvious desire on the part of the Vatican to have good relations with the Jewish community.”

But at the same time, Reich expressed some disappointment that the pope did not go further in some of his statements, particularly on the Vatican’s continued refusal to recognize Israel.

The occasion of the meeting, the first of its kind in three years, was a two-day gathering of Vatican and Jewish leaders called to commemorate the 25th anniversary of “Nostra Aetate,” the 1965 decree by the Second Vatican Council that redefined Catholic-Jewish relations and opened the way for dialogue between the two faiths.

During the gathering, the Vatican demonstrated its desire to resolve the painful three-year dispute with world Jewry over the establishment of a Carmelite convent on the grounds of the former Auschwitz death camp.


Archbishop Edward Cassidy, chairman of the Holy See’s Commission on Religious Relations With the Jews, announced that the Vatican is giving substantial financial assistance to help complete construction of a new convent and ecumenical center where the nuns at Auschwitz will be relocated. A Vatican spokesman said the aid amounted to $100,000.

During his meeting with the Jewish leaders, the pope said, “This has been a very important day. Let’s hope to continue.”

He called the Nostra Aetate anniversary “nothing other than the divine mercy which is guiding Christians and Jews to mutual awareness, respect, cooperation and solidarity.”

He also affirmed the “absolute singularity of God’s choice of a particular people. ‘His own’ people, Israel.”

Using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, he added that “no dialogue between Christians and Jews can overlook the painful and terrible experience of the Shoah.”

The pope also confirmed the conclusions put forward in a landmark joint Jewish-Catholic statement made in Prague Sept. 6.

He urged that the Prague declaration and its recommendation to fight anti-Semitism everywhere “be widely recognized and implemented wherever human and religious rights are violated.”

Leaders of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, here to mark the Nostra Aetate anniversary, thanked the pope for his efforts to fight anti-Semitism.

But much still has to be done, especially in Eastern Europe, they said.

Reich remarked later that “the significant thing is the loud and clear confirmation of the Prague statement” by the pope.

“This is now official Vatican/church policy. It calls for repentance” for past Catholic wrongs against Jews, and “it calls anti-Semitism a sin. It envisages a plan to implement the concrete proposals to fight anti-Semitism set forth in the Prague document.”


Nonetheless, Reich said he was “somewhat disappointed that the pope did not go beyond that which was set forth in his text.”

In his own remarks to the pontiff, Reich called for concrete action in the future, particularly in fighting anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. He also urged the Vatican to recognize Israel.

“We believe that full and formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel will dramatically and substantively advance the cause of peace,” Reich told the pope.

“The normalization of relations will send a strong signal to those nations that are still committed to the destruction of Israel.

“We live at a time when long-held ideologies are being abandoned in many parts of the world, and when new initiatives for peace are taking place every day,” he said.

“Physical, political and psychological walls and barriers between peoples are falling everywhere. Now is the time for the full ripening of relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel,” he said.

The pope, however, scarcely touched on the issue, referring only to his reverence for Jerusalem as a holy city.

“At the center of the Holy Land, almost at its hallowed heart, lies Jerusalem,” he said. “It is a city holy to three great religions: to Jews, Christians and Moslems. Its very name evokes peace.

“I should like you to join in praying daily for peace, justice and respect for the fundamental human and religious rights of the three peoples, the three communities of faith who inhabit that beloved land,” he said.


The Jewish delegation also raised the Israel issue during a 45-minute meeting following the papal audience with the newly appointed Vatican secretary of state, Monsignor Jean-Louis Tauran.

“He told us there are problems with full normalization with Israel,” Reich reported. “He said they are issues relating to Jerusalem, to the Palestinians, to borders.

“We had anticipated this; we have heard this in the past,” he said.

But he stressed, “There can’t be full normalization of relations between the Jewish and Catholic communities until the Vatican has full, normal relations with Israel. That is a basis for us.”

Reich said the meeting with Tauran was particularly significant as it marked the beginning of a formal communication mechanism between IJCIC and the Vatican Secretariat of State.

Such communications will eventually, it is hoped, parallel in the political sphere the religious dialogue IJCIC already has with the Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews.

“Our religious relations don’t deal with political matters,” Reich said. Political cooperation, he said, should help “put out brush fires,” heading off conflicts and misunderstandings between the two communities.

Conflicts in the political sphere have included the pope’s embrace of Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat, his meetings with ex-Nazi Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and the convent controversy, which curtailed top-level Catholic-Jewish meetings for three years before it was resolved.

Reich said several other topics were touched on during discussions.

One was the repeated assertion that in the future, Catholic-Jewish dialogue must not be confined to hierarchies or elites.

“It’s getting down to the grass-roots level that’s important,” he said.

Another was Jewish concern over recent reports that the Vatican was considering beatifying Queen Isabella of Spain, the monarch who expelled the Jews from Spain in 1492.

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