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BY Michele Chabin
JERUSALEM — The soaring stone walls of the ancient Old City of Jerusalem served as the backdrop for the June 19-21 meeting here between Vatican officials and top Israeli rabbis.
The event marked the second time the Bilateral Commission for Dialogue Between the Holy See and Chief Rabbinate of Israel, a high-level committee devoted to improving relations between Catholics and Jews, was convened in Jerusalem. Three such meetings have been held in Rome.
The participants, which included Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican's ambassador to Israel, dedicated their encounter to Pope John Paul II, who did so much to heal wounds between Christians and Jews by denouncing anti-Semitism in all its forms.
During John Paul's 2000 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, which included visits to the Western Wall and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center, he acknowledged that Christians have often persecuted Jews over the centuries. He also referred to Judaism as the “older brother” of Christianity.
“This initiative was born after the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Holy Land,” Archbishop Sambi said during a break in the proceedings. “This year is also the 40th anniversary of the Nostre Aetate [the Second Vatican Council document that called for better relations between Catholics and Jews], which declared that Jews and Christians have a great deal of Biblical heritage in common, and that the future relations between us should be marked by dialogue and study of this common heritage.”
Archbishop Sambi said that the commission has an ongoing mandate to meet “because our main purpose is the one expressed by Pope John Paul at Yad Vashem: to build a future in which there is no anti-Jewish feeling among Christians, and no anti-Christian feelings among Jews.”
To achieve this, the archbishop said, the Catholic and Jewish delegations invested a great deal of effort to get to know each other on a religious level as well as personal level. During each of their five meetings to date, they selected a topic for study, and then presented their respective theological views on the subject. Lively discussions inevitably ensued, the nuncio added with a smile.
Said Archbishop Sambi, “We do what will guide us to greater understanding, of one another and ourselves.”
At last month's meeting, whose sessions were closed to the media, the participants focused on the “The Relationship Between Religious and Civil Authority” from Christian and Jewish perspectives.
The Holy See's delegation, which was headed by Cardinal Jorge Mejia, the Vatican's former chief archivist and librarian, and the Jewish delegation, which was led by Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, discussed how people of faith “can best impact on secular structures to promote the moral and ethical concerns of their tradition,” according to Rabbi David Rosen, one of the participants.
Rosen, the international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said in an interview that the group addressed the challenges of being religious in a largely secular world.
Israel, Rosen said, “is a secular democracy, not a theocracy, in which the vast majority of its operations are divorced from any religious interests and sometimes even alien to them.” At the same time, he stressed, the country is “saturated by Jewish culture that is rooted in religion. This creates special dilemmas.”
Rosen noted that the Catholic Church faces a range of challenges because it functions in so many different kinds of societies.
“Some, like Poland and Ireland, are culturally religious, even though the Church and state are not synonymous; in Italy, the Church has a formal concordat defining the extent to which issues of religion and state impact on one another. Then there's the case of Israel, where you have a Catholic minority within a culture of another faith.”
Whereas Israel and the Vatican have a formal agreement, “there are certain Muslim societies, most notably Saudi Arabia, where the Church isn't even allowed to function,” Rosen said. “All these models were examined as to how to best advance the well-being of not only one's own religious community but society at large.”
At the meeting's conclusion, the committee issued a statement declaring “religious values are crucial for the well-being of the individual and society.”
It said that “while emphasizing the importance of democracy … it is essential to legally protect society from extreme individualism, exploitation by vested interest groups and insensitivity to the cultural and moral values of religious tradition. Freedom of religion must be guaranteed to both individuals and communities by the religious and civil authorities.”
The statement underscored that “legislation for the promotion of particular religious values is legitimate when done in harmony with the principles of human rights. We have an ethical obligation to demonstrate religious responsibility in these regards, and especially to educate future generations through engaging media opinion makers as well as through conventional educational channels.”
The participants said that it is the “responsibility of the state” to “guarantee the rights of all religious communities, giving special attention to the situation and needs of the Christian communities in the Holy Land, as well as the needs of Jewish communities around the world, facilitating full social and political equality without undermining particular identities.”
Father Norbert Hofmann, secretary to the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, said that the meetings “have become an ordinary event, which is in itself extraordinary. We're becoming friends, our confidence is growing, and we are more and more open.
Concluded Father Hofmann, “It's an extraordinary dialogue.”
Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.