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Around the Jewish World in Mexico City, Cardinal Works to Improve Catholic-jewish Ties

September 9, 2005
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With centuries of anti-Semitism weighing on the Roman Catholic Church, some might consider Mexico City’s 338-year-old Metropolitan Cathedral — an imposing symbol of Christianity with a vast interior crammed with crucifixes and religious icons — an unusual place to find sympathy for the Jewish people. Indeed, less than a block away, street vendors hawk Spanish translations of such anti-Semitic tracts as “The International Jew,” “Mein Kampf” and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Yet Cardinal Norberto Rivera says those vendors are hopelessly out of touch with the Mexican mainstream, and adds that the vast majority of Mexico’s 95 million or so Catholics have nothing against their 40,000 Jewish brethren.

“Disgracefully, we still have isolated expressions of anti-Semitism, but the influence of such books is not great and the Mexican people don’t accept this,” Rivera said. “We must promote a dialogue of tolerance, accept those who are different and fight all classes of discrimination.”

As archbishop of Mexico City, Rivera, 63, is the most powerful Catholic in the world’s most populous Catholic country after Brazil. The cardinal spoke to JTA one recent Sunday morning as he prepared his weekly sermon, which is heard by hundreds of Catholics gathered in the cathedral and broadcast throughout Mexico to a weekly radio audience of several hundred thousand.

“The average Mexican knows little about the lives and thoughts of the Jewish community,” said Rivera, who originally is from the state of Durango and was named to his current post in 1998. “I think this is a community we must get to know better, because that would allow us to accept them and reject false stereotypes.”

In late June, Rivera led seven other Spanish-speaking bishops on an 11-day trip to Poland and Israel. Co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Mexican Jewish community, the visit was an effort to educate the country’s Catholic leadership about the Jewish people and particularly about the Holocaust.

The group spent four days in Poland, visiting the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Belzec and Majdanek, as well as an important Catholic shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Czestochowa. In Warsaw, they met Polish Foreign Minister Daniel Adam Rotfeld, who is Jewish, and Israel’s ambassador to Poland, David Peleg.

During their week in Israel, the eight bishops toured key Jewish and Christian holy sites, dined with representatives of the Holy See and spoke with a range of Israeli Arabs and Jews.

“Six years ago, I went to Israel with the Jewish community of Mexico, but this trip was extraordinary,” Rivera told JTA. “There was particularly a lot of interest in the Holocaust. Seeing the concentration camps gave me a much deeper impression than visiting Yad Vashem, because this was really an attack against human dignity that we must never allow to be repeated.”

Renee Dayan-Shabot is director of Tribuna Israelita, the political affairs agency of the Mexican Jewish community. She said the idea of inviting the bishops to Israel and Poland grew out of her organization’s co-sponsorship of a highly successful 1999 visit to the two countries by 16 Mexican academics.

“We want to transmit the idea that Jews and Catholics can live with each other, learning about their differences but respecting each other,” Dayan-Shabot said. She noted that while Mexican synagogues have never been bombed or vandalized, “what we have are newspaper articles criticizing Israel or talking badly about Jews. We know there’s anti-Semitism. We don’t fool ourselves into assuming everybody loves us.”

In 1999, Tribuna Israelita published “Texts for Judeo-Christian Dialogue.” The book depicts Pope John Paul II praying at the Western Wall and explains the various Vatican edicts that urge greater understanding between Jews and Catholics.

Earlier this year, on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Tribuna Israelita published a second book with the help of Mexico’s National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination. “Auschwitz: Reflections in the Mexican Press” consists of several dozen articles and illustrations on the subject by leading local journalists.

Most Mexican Catholics know little about the Holocaust, and Jewish leaders like Dayan-Shabot hope the bishops who went on the trip will speak about their experiences with their congregations.

Like his late predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI was a witness to the persecution of the Jews during World War II and is very sensitive to their suffering, Rivera says.

“In addition to being a man with a deep knowledge of history, he will not only continue to follow in the path of John Paul II but will open new approaches to this dialogue” between Catholics and Jews, Rivera said.

Joining Rivera on the spiritual journey to Israel and Poland were bishops from smaller Mexican cities such as Durango, Texcoco and Guadalajara, as well as three bishops from border communities in Texas.

“The purpose of the trip was to unite in a closer bond — via our Judeo-Christian roots — the Spanish-speaking Jewish communities of Mexico and the United States with the Catholic Spanish-speaking hierarchy in both countries,” said Rev. James Tamayo, bishop of Laredo, Texas.

“Most of us had been to Israel before, but what was unique about this pilgrimage was how the Jewish hosts who sponsored the trip helped us to see Israel and Poland through the eyes of the Jewish community. It allowed us to be more aware of the tragedy of the Holocaust,” added Tamayo, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Hispanic Affairs.

“There was great openness on everyone’s part to share our stories of faith and history, the positive along with the painful,” he said. “The bonding that took place between all of us, I think, is the foundation of what we hope will take place in our towns and communities.”

Tamayo’s diocese covers an impoverished, 200-mile stretch of the Texas-Mexico border that’s home to around 200,000 Catholics. Within the seven-county area are 54 priests serving 29 churches and 15 missions.

At the moment, the most pressing issue for Tamayo is the plight of Mexican immigrants in the United States. American Jews traditionally have been sympathetic to immigrants, and Hispanic leaders hope their Jewish colleagues in Washington will raise influential voices to protest vigilante killings along the U.S.-Mexico border and what they consider inhumane treatment of illegal aliens.

“We get wonderful support from our local Jewish community,” Tamayo told JTA. “When we had a Mass in honor of the pope’s passing, Congregation Agudas Achim donated the flowers for the altar and sent us a letter of condolence. I think there’s an opportunity here for us as a new Catholic diocese to grow as an interfaith community.”

Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJCommittee’s Latino and Latin American Institute, said the bishops’ visit to Poland and Israel will “contribute to deepening their understanding of the two main pillars of the contemporary Jewish experience — the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.”

“We hope to expand this initiative to include Catholic leaders from across Latin America,” she said.

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