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Catholics Join Jews in Urging Vatican to Establish Relations with Israel

Representatives of a papal commission have joined Jewish leaders in calling on the Vatican to make “significant progress” toward establishing full diplomatic relations with Israel.

They issued their joint communique after a three-day meeting here this week of the International Liaison Committee — a joint body of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.

At the Liaison Committee’s last meeting, in September 1990 in Prague, the Jewish and Catholic delegations jointly condemned anti-Semitism as a sin against God and humanity. But at that time, only the Jews called on the Vatican to establish ties with Israel.

The Catholic and Jewish leaders meeting here also called on the Vatican to consider opening its archives from the Holocaust and post-Holocaust period.

The Vatican currently seals its archives for 70 years, which means that no church documents after 1922 are yet accessible to outside scholars, and that Holocaust-era information will not be available for scrutiny until after the turn of the millennium.

The Catholic-Jewish statement asked the Vatican to consider making exceptions and allow “serious scholars” to examine the documents on a case-by-case basis.

Opening the archives would shed light on questions that Jews have been asking for decades about the pope’s silence while Jews were being murdered, and about the role of the Vatican in enabling Nazi war criminals to find refuge after the war.

The changes reflected in the joint statement signal a maturation of the Jewish-Catholic relationship, say participants.

IJCIC’s members are the American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Israel Interfaith Committee, Synagogue Council of America, and the World Jewish Congress, whose president, Edgar Bronfman, currently chairs the interreligious body.

Past meetings of the Liaison Committee have focused on crises, like the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz and the remarks made by Poland’s Cardinal Jozef Glemp, considered by many Jews to be anti-Semitic.

This year’s gathering, May 4-7, focused on deepening the relationship between the two groups and extending action to areas of common interest, rather than painful controversy.

IJCIC Chairman Bronfman called it “a new era of mutual trust in Catholic-Jewish relations.”

“We have addressed the past authentically and honestly, and are able to move into a completely new period,” said Elan Steinberg, Bronfman’s spokesman.

Some of the indications of closer relations are efforts to revise Jewish and Catholic text-books so that they reflect the new mutual under-standing, and joint cooperation on social welfare issues.

The Liaison Committee has asked that every country’s national bishops conference and Jewish community meet annually for “mutual reflection on the goals and possibility of the dialogue between Jews and Catholics.”

“The Vatican is sending this message to its church worldwide,” said Rabbi Henry Michelman, executive vice president of the Synagogue Council of America, which represents the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements, and serves as the American secretariat for IJCIC.

“There is a Vatican endorsement and request for local Catholics to respond to various Jewish communities in the full spirit of these accords. To us, this is rather impressive,” he said.

Still, at least one participant in the meetings wanted more commitment from the Vatican to increasing Catholics’ understanding of Jews and Judaism.

Henry Sobel, rabbi of a Reform synagogue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who was at the conference representing the Latin-American Jewish Congress, described efforts in his home country.

Before Easter, he said, the country’s bishops received a letter asking them to ensure that the Passion Plays in each of their dioceses were devoid of anti-Jewish references.

And on the eve of Easter, on Hallelujah Saturday, the day when Jews were traditionally beaten by the Catholic masses, he said, he and the region’s Catholic archbishop appeared together on television and spoke about the differences and parallels between Easter and Passover.

“This is what I mean by ‘popularizing the dialogue,’ ” Sobel told his colleagues. “Imagine if the pope were publicly to condemn the sin of anti-Semitism and acts of anti-Semitism — what an echo would be heard among Catholics all over the globe!

“The Vatican should go out of its way to make sure that the new teachings with regard to the Jews are understood in every parish in the entire world — and acted upon.”

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