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Jerusaleminterfaith Conference Brings Record Number of Christian Luminaries

February 9, 1994
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A huge interfaith conference held here last week broke new ground by bringing many church luminaries to Jerusalem for the first time and thereby offering de facto recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the capital city.

Top Christian leaders joined rabbis from around the world to address the common challenges posed by modernity in the largest interfaith conference ever held in Jerusalem.

Despite a boycott by Israel’s Orthodox and fervently Orthodox establishment, the International Jewish/Christian Conference on Modern Social and Scientific Challenges was hailed as a big success, drawing more than 500 delegates from nearly 100 countries.

The presence of so many Christian leaders comes in the wake of the recent establishment of diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel and a generally warmer international attitude toward Israel as a result of the Middle East peace accords.

“There were top appointees of the church from the Vatican and top appointees of the Protestants from Geneva,” said Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, administration director of the Center for Christian Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

“And they were here on an equal footing (with the Jews) at the invitation of the Jewish people,” he said. “Outside of the pope, what more (could) you want?”

The conference was sponsored by the Bamot Center for Cultural and Social Studies in cooperation with the Tantur Ecumenical Institute.

The notables included Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is the world’s most powerful cardinal and is the leading conservative voice in the Catholic Church, based in Rome; Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the archbishop of Milan, who is often named as a possible candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II and is the most prominent church liberal; and the archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey.


“The academic and scholarly positions being staked out (were) not spectacularly new or groundbreaking,” said Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the New York-based president of CLAL, the Center for Jewish Learnig and Leadership, and one of the keynote speakers.

But the “highly visible, Jewish-sponsored” interfaith dynamic of the conference in Jerusalem was “remarkable,” he said. “The number of cardinals knocked my eyes out.

“And theology follows reality,” he said. He pointed to a “historic transformation of the church toward a covenantal pluralism in its attitude toward Judaism,” as evidenced by Ratzinger’s speech.

Ratzinger referred to the history of the relationship between “Israel and Christendom” as one “drenched with blood and tears” and one “of mistrust and hostility.”

But he also saw the relationship as one marked “again and again by attempts at forgiveness, understanding and mutual acceptance. “After Auschwitz, the mission of reconciliation and acceptance permits no deferral,” he said.

Even as a child, said the cardinal, he could never understand how Jews could be condemned by the church for the death of Jesus.

“Jews and Christians should accept each other in profound inner reconciliation, neither in disregard of their faith nor in its denial, but out of the depth of faith itself. In their mutual reconciliation they should become a force for peace in and for the world,” he said.

Prominent rabbis from abroad included Rene Sirat, former chief rabbi of France and current president of the Conference of European Rabbis, and South Africa’s Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris.

Rabbi David Rosen, former chief rabbi of Ireland and current director of interfaith relations for the Anti-Defamation League in Israel, served as conference chairman.

But several European and Israeli Orthodox rabbis scheduled to attend the conference apparently succumbed to pressure from the Orthodox and fervently Orthodox establishment not to participate.

A statement was issued in the names of Israel’s chief rabbis, Yisrael Lau and Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, calling on local rabbis not to attend. Former Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, originally slated to participate, withdrew and publicly criticized the conference.

These rabbis maintained the gathering was predicated on the false assumption that the two faiths share common ground. They said the meeting would confer an unacceptable legitimacy on Christianity.


Sirat said he believed the protest may have been a result of a misunderstanding about the nature of the conference. “Perhaps (the rabbis) were afraid there would be theological arguments,” he said.

Instead, Sirat said the conference afforded a chance for “a real dialogue to find solutions to problems we all face,” including AIDS, poverty, homelessness, violence and the strife in the former Yugoslavia.

Also on the agenda were the ethical and moral implications of genetic engineering, medical advances in fertility and the artificial prolongation of life.

Sirat said he hoped the next conference would include religious leaders from Islam.

Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah, a Palestinian, gave a speech voicing his hopes of achieving an enduring peace between Christians, Jews and Muslims in Israel and of promoting ethical and religious values in a pluralistic society.

He said he has exercised his pastoral ministry “in the context of a constant cycle of moral and physical violence, of daily anxieties and sufferings, heightened by intermittent wars.”

He said he is now rejoicing “in that new hope that has been born through the political initiatives of the local and international negotiators.” And he warned that “if that hope is shattered,” then “catastrophe looms.”

Tourism Minister Uzi Baram said travel to Israel by church leaders would legitimate in a new way Christian pilgrimages to Israel. This could greatly impact tourism and the economy, he said.

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