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Behind the Headlines: New Ijcic Chairman Focusing on Relations Beyond Vatican

The new chairman of the umbrella group representing world Jewry in interfaith dialogue thinks it is time for the Jewish community to focus on building ties with religions beyond the Roman Catholics.

The International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC, has represented world Jewry in interfaith dialogue since 1979. But for the last several years, it has focused primarily on crisis management of relations with the Vatican.

But Edgar Bronfman, IJCIC’s new chairman, believes it is now time to strengthen lines of communication with the Eastern Orthodox, Protestants and Moslems.

Bronfman is president of the World Jewish Congress, an IJCIC member agency. He succeeds Seymour Reich of B’nai B’rith International as IJCIC’s chairman.

One of Bronfman’s first initiatives was to reinstate the relationship with Protestants, which had lain fallow so long that it had ceased to exist, for all practical purposes.

Bronfman sent Israel Singer, WJC secretary-general, to represent him at a meeting in Geneva with Dr. Emilio Castro, secretary-general of the World Council of Churches.

The Dec. 18 meeting was the first that leaders of the two groups had held in six or eight years, Singer said.

At the meeting, Castro invited IJCIC’s leadership to meet again with leaders of the World Council, which represents more than 300 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox denominations in 100 countries.

‘DIALOGUE IS BACK ON TRACK’

“We’ve reopened the dialogue. This is a major breakthrough,” Singer said. “Dialogue is back on track without conditions, without terms. And we have not changed our positions for the sake of relations.”

IJCIC has accepted the invitation “in principle,” said Singer, and representatives hope to meet with World Council leaders in the spring.

One factor that has contributed to the decline in relations between the two groups has been “the very anti-Israel stance that the World Council has taken on many occasions,” according to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the WJC and a spokesperson for Bronfman.

During the Persian Gulf War, for instance, when the World Council met in Canberra, Australia, it made no statement about the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel.

“Not one moral voice spoke out at the conference,” Singer recalled.

But when the WJC official raised the issue in Geneva, there was a noticeable change in tone.

He quoted Castro, the group’s secretary-general, as saying, “We did not feel your pain there, and we feel it today. Especially with respect to gas, we understand why Jews felt so terrible. We should have responded, and we’re doing it right now.”

Another of Bronfman’s initiatives is a meeting between IJCIC representatives and officials of the more than dozen Eastern Orthodox churches, scheduled to be held in Athens in May.

The Athens meeting will be “the first-ever consultation with the Orthodox Church as a whole,” Steinberg said.

The various Eastern Orthodox churches are self-governing but share consensus on matters of faith, despite diverse ethnicities, histories, cultures and languages.

FIRST MEETING IN FIVE YEARS

It will be IJCIC’s first meeting with the Eastern Orthodox in five years, according to Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, a former IJCIC chairman and current member of the Synagogue Council of America’s interreligious affairs committee.

The Synagogue Counci is one of IJCIC’s constituent agencies and serves as its American secretariat.

“We’re going to have to go slowly and really do our homework on both sides, so we don’t merely repeat banalities to each other” at the Athens meeting, he said.

While in Geneva last week, Singer and a six-member IJCIC delegation met with senior Vatican officials to plan a meeting with leaders of the Vatican Commission on Religious Relations With the Jews.

This year it will be held May 4-7 in Baltimore, at a still-undetermined location.

The last high-level meeting between IJCIC and the commission was held in September 1990, in Prague, and resulted in the unprecedented church definition of anti-Semitism as a sin against God and humanity.

The relationship with the Vatican could easily have fallen into a rut because of the interreligious debacle this year over Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp’s visit to the United States, Singer said.

But instead, Vatican officials made a point last week of welcoming the U.N. General Assembly’s vote to rescind its 1975 resolution branding Zionism as racism.

“It was really remarkable. We opened (the meeting) with this positive spirit,” said Singer.

Perhaps the most important item on the agenda in Baltimore will be the worldwide implementation of the Prague declaration.

Members of the Vatican’s Commission on Education and its Commission on Peace and Justice, which will disseminate and implement the Prague proclamation, will be at the Baltimore meeting, Singer said.

‘THERE IS A NEW SPIRIT’

There remains a great deal of work for them to do, he said. Even in this country, “in some Catholic schools, textbooks say that Zionism is racism. This will all have to be routed out,” Singer said.

Members of the Vatican Commission on Relations With the Jews “want the information to trickle down to every parish,” he said.

“As one of the people who have been tough in the past, I can tell you there is a new spirit, the spirit of Prague,” he said.

IJCIC and Vatican representatives are also discussing joint action on human rights issues, said Singer, on problems such as extreme nationalism, world poverty, the homeless, nuclear proliferation and the plight of political refugees.

“This is the first time that substantive questions of interest to both sides like this are being discussed at international forums,” he said.

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