BUENOS AIRES — When Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi announced May 15 the itinerary for Pope Francis’ May 24-26 trip to the Holy Land, he noted that “Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Ahmed Abboud, secretary general of the Argentine Institute of Interreligious Dialogue, will be in the papal delegation. The Pope knows them from … Argentina.”
So who are Rabbi Skorka and Omar Abboud? They represent two non-Christian communities with which Jorge Bergoglio has had frequent and friendly contacts as archbishop of Buenos Aires. The former is Jewish; the latter is Muslim.
Argentina is a country where these communities live together in harmony. On the same street can be found shops selling similar wares, all owned by Muslim Arabs, or Sephardi or Ashkenazi Jews. They coexist peacefully here, though in the Middle East or elsewhere the relationship can be non-existent, tense or troublesome.
There is also rapport among their leaders and institutions. “Here, there have never been any problems,” said Miguel Woites, who has headed the Argentine Catholic Information Agency (AICA) for more than 50 years, .
Skorka lives in Buenos Aires but is already in Israel. He will not travel in the plane with the Pope to respect the Jewish Sabbath, since the trip begins on Saturday. Abboud traveled from Buenos Aires to Rome, where he is now and where I contacted him this week.
Abraham Skorka, 64, is a chemist and rabbi of the Benei Tikvá community, founded in Buenos Aires 75 years ago by Jews of German origin. He is also rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, founded in 1962 by U.S. Rabbi Marshall Meyer. Almost 90 rabbis from several countries have graduated from that seminary. Skorka is a longtime friend of the Pope's.
One evening, in 2004, I was present at a visit that Cardinal Bergoglio made to the Benei Tikvá community, where he attended a service of Selijot (asking of forgiveness) to welcome the Jewish New Year 5765.
“Jorge Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka are friends,” I reported for the Buenos Aires daily La Nación. “Both are men who pray and praise God. One is cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires and primate of Argentina; the other, a rabbi of the Benei Tikvá community and rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. But they don’t talk only of theology and the meaning of life; they converse a lot about soccer. Jorge is a fan of San Lorenzo; Abraham of River Plate” (two well-known Argentine soccer teams).
In a full temple, Skorka said, “We have here present a man of faith of Christianity.” And, he specified, “We could give you many examples of our friendship, of personal shows of affection. We are not only two individuals who met seeking God. We are both standing before you, before God, trying to begin to do that which our sages taught us.”
That night, Skorka and his wife drove Cardinal Bergoglio and me downtown in their car. Last year, Skorka reminded me of this in an event at Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón, in which the rabbinical seminary celebrated its 50th anniversary: “Do you remember that night in which we returned by car with the cardinal? Who would have been able to imagine that today he would be pope?”
Skorka, moved, told me it was as if he were living a dream. A few days before that, he had stayed at the Vatican’s Santa Marta hostel, invited by Francis, where he shared meals with his friend, the Pope.
Starting in December 2010, Skorka and Bergoglio shared a TV show of dialogue on the Buenos Aires archdiocesan Channel 21. It was coordinated by an evangelical Protestant, Marcelo Figueroa, also a friend of Bergoglio. Figueroa is a former head of the Biblical Society of Argentina. There are more than 30 taped episodes of that program, called Bible: A Valid Dialogue, in which topics such as politics, solidarity, sexuality and forgiveness were discussed with trust.
The rabbi and the archbishop co-authored the book On Heaven and Earth. Bergoglio also nominated Skorka as a recipient of an honorary doctorate from The Catholic University of Argentina. And in October 2012, just five months before his election as pope, he presided at the event in which Skorka received that distinction. The preacher of the papal household, Franciscan Father Raniero Cantalamessa, was the speaker invited to address the assembly. He could not have imagined that Cardinal Bergoglio would soon be his boss.
This week, I asked Skorka for how long he has known Francis. On May 21, he replied, from Jerusalem: “We have known each other since the mid-’90s.” That is, when Bergoglio was a Buenos Aires auxiliary bishop (he took over as archbishop in 1998, upon the death of Cardinal Antonio Quarracino).
I asked Abboud the same thing: When did he meet the Pope?
Abboud is a former secretary general of the Islamic Center of Argentina and friend of Francis, whom I have known for a long time. Abboud, replying from Rome by email, reminded me of an article I wrote about a Christmas meeting in December 2008. I have to admit that I had forgotten about it.
I looked it up. It was about an interreligious meeting organized by the Catholic Charismatic Renewal that Cardinal Bergoglio attended. At the end, Abboud said a few words, in which he considered “the birth of Jesus as a transcendent event,” wished all a “happy Christmas” and described Bergoglio as “one of the best men of the republic.”
Abboud, 48, descends from Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who are well-integrated in Argentina (one of his grandfathers wrote the first Spanish translation of the Quran in Argentina). Regarding his first meeting with the future pope, he said, “I saw him for the first time in a Te Deum in 2001 or 2002.” The Te Deum is a public act of thanksgiving; traditionally, it is prayed in the Buenos Aires cathedral every May 25, an Argentine national holiday (on May 25, 1810, the first autonomous Argentine government was formed). Civic and religious dignitaries often attend.
“Afterwards,” continued Abboud, “thanks to the good graces of Father Guillermo Marcó,” who was the cardinal’s spokesman, Bergoglio “visited the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic for the first time; and from then on, we struck up a relationship. At first, it was within institutional parameters, since I was secretary of culture of the Islamic Center. Adel Made was the president of the center; he admired Bergoglio very much and had a deep affection for him. With the archdiocese, we started to build a vision about interreligious dialogue. Under [the cardinal’s] urging, Marcó, Rabbi Daniel Goldman and I founded the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, and we undertook many activities having to do with the culture of encounter.”
This culture of encounter remains a leitmotiv of Cardinal Bergoglio’s preaching, today echoing at a global level.
Founded in 2001 and legally constituted in 2005, the institute, formed by these three individuals of different creeds “with the certainty that we share a common origin and seek a common destiny,” sought to establish a deep dialogue “with the aim of understanding which are the points of overlap in the daily task of faith in God.”
The objective is “to promote fraternity among persons of different faiths and convictions, centered on the peaceful union of peoples without losing the characteristics of identity.”
What specific actions did they undertake? Among others, the three leaders co-edited a book; together with Pastoral Universitaria (University Chaplaincies) and the periodical Valores Religiosos (Religious Values), they set up a course for leaders on interreligious dialogue that has been functioning for eight years; together, they promoted talks, meetings and documents for peace and against terrorism.
Something that was highly significant, because it was encouraged by Francis himself, was the trip last February to the Holy Land (which included visits to Jordan, Palestine and Israel and which ended in Rome) as an anticipation of the Holy Father’s own journey. That pilgrimage gathered together 45 Argentinians of different origins: 15 Christians, 15 Muslims and 15 Jews (among them, Father Marcó, Abboud and Rabbi Goldman). They were received by Jordan’s King Abdullah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and by Israeli President Shimon Peres.
And they ended by conversing with their compatriot Pope Francis in Rome. There, on Feb. 28, Francis said to Abboud: “We'll go together to the Holy Land.”
Members of the delegation included, among others, former Argentine Foreign Affairs Minister Adalberto Rodríguez Giavarini, a practicing Catholic, and Julio Schlosser, president of the Delegation of Israeli Associations of Argentina (DAIA), an entity that represents all Jewish institutions, be they social, sporting or religious. The atmosphere that prevailed was one of a very moving unity, in sharing visits to holy places and life in common during a number of days.
And what does Abboud recall especially about Bergoglio in Buenos Aires? He replied, “We lived many things. He was always cordial and respectful when we met, especially taking into account that I am Muslim. I remember many things that impressed me greatly; once, in Plaza Once [a square in Buenos Aires], he spoke to young people from the street. He was spontaneous, and there was neither a platform nor a microphone. A group of people came to greet him, and he started to speak.
“He told them, ‘Don’t let them rob you of your hope’; he continued talking, and he repeated that again. People started coming closer and forming a circle around him. The type of silence that was generated, if you pardon the paradox, could be heard. And again: ‘Don’t let them rob you of your hope.’ It was the most inspiring thing.”
Jorge Rouillon writes from Buenos Aires.