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European Catholics, Jews Note Better Relations — and Challenges

March 14, 2003
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An interfaith conference of European Catholics and Jews this week demonstrated how much relations between the two groups have improved — but how much they differ on issues such as a possible war against Iraq.

Sharing a platform with cardinals and chief rabbis, the president of the European Jewish Congress said relations between the two communities had progressed immeasurably in recent years.

“It took 1,986 years for a Pope to visit a synagogue and 2,000 years to visit the Western Wall,” Michel Friedman said in his keynote speech, in the historic setting of Paris’s Hotel de Ville. But “today, the strongest links which Jews have with any denomination are with the Vatican and the Catholic Church.”

The roundtable discussions, titled “The Second European Encounters Between Catholic and Jews,” were spread over two days at UNESCO headquarters in Paris and were organized by the European Jewish Congress, with the participation of the North American Boards of Rabbis and the Catholic Episcopal Committee for Relations with Judaism.

The talks came against the backdrop of a rise in European anti-Semitism, as well as moves by the European Union to expand eastward to include many of the former Warsaw Pact countries.

The expansion process is likely to include the drawing up of a new constitution for the European Union. Delegates at the interfaith dialogue exchanged ideas about the role of religion in the constitution, together with their different perspectives on the separation of religion and state.

Friedman and other Jewish leaders said the Catholic Church had come a long way in its relations with Jews — a process, he pointed out, that had begun with Pope John XXIII at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965.

Catholics and Jews must work toward the future, Friedman said, but he also reminded delegates that “there was no future without the past.”

It therefore is important that Vatican archives from World War II be opened “so that we can all see both the good and the bad,” he said.

In response to pressure from Jewish groups, the Vatican recently opened documents from the pre-war period, but so far has not allowed access to its wartime archives.

Friedman’s words were echoed by Joseph Sitruk, France’s chief rabbi and president of the Conference of European Rabbis.

For Sitruk, the church had showed “great humility” by the “beautiful gesture” of asking Jews for forgiveness for centuries of church-sponsored anti-Semitism.

However, European Jews are worried not just about the past but about the present, Friedman said.

“European governments had to understand that the fight against anti-Semitism was the same as the fight for democracy,” he said.

Referring to the situation in France, where Jews have been subjected to waves of anti-Semitic attacks over the past two years, Friedman added that “1 percent of anti-Semitism was 1 percent too much.”

Nevertheless, he pointed out that Europe enabled Jews to be both part of the Jewish people and full citizens of their respective countries.

“I can live as a German in Germany,” Friedman said, referring to his own nationality, “and as a European in France – – but I can do so because Israel guarantees it. “

Friedman’s comments were seized upon by France’s interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

“No Jew should doubt his place in France,” Sarkozy said, to rapturous applause from delegates.

This year’s conference was marked by the invitation given to Jewish representatives from the United States, who, it was felt, could contribute their own experience of interfaith dialogue and offer an extra perspective on the U.S. model of separating church and state.

According to Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the North American Boards of Rabbis, Europe still is a long way behind the United States in interfaith dialogue.

“It’s not even something out of the ordinary in the U.S. when rabbis and priests meet, ” Schneier told JTA.

However, Father Patrick Desbois, who heads the Committee for Relations with Judaism for the French Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said many of the Americans showed a lack of understanding of the church’s role in France.

“I got the impression that some of them had never met a bishop before,” he told JTA.

Desbois recently returned from a tour of the New York Jewish community by French Catholic theology students and priests.

The tour, organized by Israel Singer, president of the World Jewish Congress, had opened the eyes of all who took part, Desbois said.

“We met Jews from across the spectrum — Reform, Conservative, Yeshiva University, and even from Lubavitch and Satmar Chasidim,” he said. “We went to prepare a new generation of priests to know living Jews. We have a lot of priests who know about Judaism from books, but not from people.”

Desbois said a great deal of progress had been made since a similar interfaith conference in 2002, largely as a result of the special relationship between Singer and the cardinal-archbishop of Paris, Jean-Marie Lustiger.

Moreover, Jews and Catholics now work together on joint projects such as providing assistance in Argentina.

“It is ridiculous that Jews and Catholics just talk about what happened 50 years ago — that in 2003 the only thing we can talk about is Pius XII,” Desbois said, referring to the World War II-era pope who Jewish groups say did not do enough to oppose the Nazi extermination of Jews. “There are so many current issues we can work together on.”

That may be so, but the conference also exposed a major rift between Jews and Catholics on the central issue of current-day politics, the potential for war in Iraq.

In his opening speech at the conference, Friedman clearly placed world Jewry on the side of the U.S. administration.

“My enemy is not George W. Bush but Saddam Hussein. It is not U.S. democracy but the Iraqi dictatorship,” Friedman said. “We should never forget who are our friends and who are our enemies.”

Friedman’s remarks contrasted with those of Lustiger, who said that “on Iraq, the position of the pope” against the war “is the position of the French Catholic Church.”

Those comments also came just a day after the Conference of Catholic Bishops officially called on the French government not to take part in a war against Iraq.

Stronger criticism, both of the French Catholic Church and the French government, came from the North American rabbis.

Schneier told JTA he had a duty as an American to “express the sense of betrayal he felt” over France’s stance on Iraq.

Just hours earlier, Schneier had surprised many at the Hotel de Ville by telling delegates he wished to “express anger at anti-Semitism in France” and at why the Catholic Church “was not raising its voice” over the issue.

Desbois, however, denied that the church had been silent, arguing that, just a day before, the Bishops’ Conference also had issued an unequivocal condemnation of anti-Semitism.

As for Iraq, he thought the Americans were off-base.

“They were invited and they have their opinion,” he said. “Maybe they think the church leads France, maybe they wanted to speak to Chirac, but we are not Chirac. France is a very, very secular country, you know.”

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