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Chanukah ceremonies at Vatican, Arch of Titus are full of symbolism

ROME, Dec. 24 (JTA) — Chanukah was ushered in in Rome this year with two unprecedented menorah-lighting ceremonies — one at the Vatican and one at the ancient Roman arch that is the symbol of the Jewish Diaspora. After Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff chanted the blessings, Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro lit the first candle of a huge menorah set up underneath the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum, near the Colosseum. The arch was built to celebrate the Roman victory over the Jews and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. On its inner side it has a carving showing the menorah from the Temple being carried by Jews brought to Rome as slaves. That carving is one of the most infamous images in Jewish history — so much so that for centuries Jews would not walk through the arch. The menorah as shown, however, was the basis for the one that became the symbol of the State of Israel. “This evening, a circle closes,” said Israel’s ambassador to Italy, Yehudah Millo. “We are here at the arch not as slaves but as representatives of the independent, free State of Israel.” The ceremony at the arch, organized by the Israeli Embassy in conjunction with Italian authorities, was an hourlong extravaganza that marked not only the beginning of Chanukah, but also kicked off celebrations that will take place during the coming year to mark the 50th anniversary of Israel. Italy’s political elite took part in the ceremony, which drew a crowd of hundreds, most of them members of the 15,000-strong Roman Jewish community. Two hours earlier, just after sunset, Vatican, Israeli and Italian Jewish representatives lit a 2-foot-high silver menorah, on loan from the Rome Jewish Museum, in the Vatican garden. The lighting, the first time that a Chanukah candle was kindled at the Vatican, also was aimed at celebrating the 50th anniversary of Israel’s founding. The ceremony took place next to an olive tree that was planted there in 1995 to mark the first anniversary of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel. The Vatican delegation was led by Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, who lit the candle as the personal representative of Pope John Paul II. Cassidy praised the development of Jewish-Catholic relations since the historic Nostra Aestate declaration of 1965. “It is because of our common heritage and values as faith communities that we have come together here this evening,” he said before lighting the candle. “There is much darkness in the world in which we live,” he said, expressing the hope that light and peace would prevail. Aharon Lopez, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, said the ceremony symbolizes “the portent of the normalization of our mutual relations” and also represents “an important chapter in the historic process of reconciliation between the Jews and the Catholic Church.” The past anti-Semitism of the Catholic Church, as well as the Vatican role’s during the Holocaust era, has long been a subject of controversy. The latest development came earlier this month, when the Vatican denied it had stored money and gold for Croatian fascists after World War II. A Vatican spokesman rejected calls for the Holy See to open its archives from that period.

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