Synod’s Rough Landing

An otherwise successful gathering of bishops at the Vatican to discuss problems in the Middle East ended amid controversy.

JERUSALEM — Vatican-Israeli relations, which were already strained in recent years over property-tax issues, the Palestinians and the Holocaust, may have received a further blow at the conclusion of the recent Synod of Bishops meeting.

(For more coverage of the synod’s final statement, see page 5.)

During the Oct. 23 closing press conference of the bishops’ gathering, which examined problems Christians face in the Middle East, the predominantly Arab body of bishops released a statement expressing solidarity with Middle East Christians, whose numbers have plummeted due to widespread emigration.

Under the section dedicated to relations with Jews, the synod message warned against inappropriate use of the words of the Bible. It said that “recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.”

It was generally interpreted to refer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his own elaboration of the passage, Bishop Cyril Bustros of the Greek Melkite Eparchy of Newton, Mass., convener of the synod’s drafting committee, said at the press briefing, “For us Christians, you can no longer speak of a land promised to the Jewish people.” The coming of Christ, Bishop Bustros said, showed that Jews “are no longer the preferred people, the chosen people; all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”

What the bishops wanted to say, in Bishop Bustros’ view, is that the theme of the Promised Land can’t be used “to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the expatriation of Palestinians.”

Palestinian Reaction

Palestinian officials lauded the statement, which censured Israel’s “occupation.” Israelis, meanwhile, said the synod — or at least some of its bishops — refused to acknowledge Jewish rights to the Holy Land, and that it was “hijacked” by Church officials with anti-Israel sentiments.

Although the synod statement did condemn terrorism and expressed solidarity with the suffering of the Iraqi Christians, it did not censure the government of a single Muslim country, even Iraq.

Instead, the bishops evaluated “the social situation and the public security in all our countries” in the Middle East, and took account “of the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the whole region, especially on the Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation.”

In describing that impact, the statement mentioned Israeli military checkpoints and the separation barrier it built to prevent terrorists from entering Israel, but which also severely limits Palestinians’ freedom of movement. It went on to include Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes on security grounds and the ongoing conflict’s “disturbance of socioeconomic life” on Palestinian livelihoods.

The bishops said they reflected “on the suffering and insecurity in which Israelis live,” but also expressed anxiety about “unilateral initiatives” that threaten Jerusalem’s “composition” and put at risk its “demographic balance,” an apparent reference to Israel’s continued determination to build in the eastern part of the city, which Israel captured after Jordan attacked it in 1967. Both Israelis and Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be part of their respective capitals.

“With all this in mind, we see that a just and lasting peace is the only salvation for everyone and for the good of the region and its peoples,” the statement said.

Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian Authority’s chief negotiator, said that President Mahmoud Abbas “welcomed” the statement’s conclusions.

Echoing the synod’s statement, Erakat said that Israel cannot use the biblical concept of a Promised Land or chosen people to justify new settlements in Jerusalem or Israeli territorial claims. The statement, he said, “is a clear message to the government of Israel that it may not claim that Jerusalem is an exclusively Israeli city.”

Erakat asserted that Israel “has imposed a legal regime aimed at ethnically cleansing the city of its indigenous Christian and Muslim population,” a claim Israel flatly denies.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon charged that the synod — which examined the reasons Christians feel so vulnerable in the Middle East — “had become a forum for political attacks on Israel in the best history of Arab propaganda.”

Ayalon said his government is “especially appalled” at Bishop Bustros’ language during the press conference. He called on the Holy See to distance itself from the comments, which he called “a libel against the Jewish people and the state of Israel.”

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, the only Jew invited to address the synod in his capacity of Jerusalem-based adviser to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said the bishops appeared to lack the courage needed to address challenges of intolerance and extremism in the Muslim countries in which they reside, “and rather chose to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their first focus.”

Rosen, who was awarded a papal knighthood in 2005, said Bishop Bustros’ words “reflect either shocking ignorance or insubordination in relation to the Catholic Church’s teaching on Jews and Judaism flowing from the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate.”

The Second Vatican Council, Rosen said, “affirms the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, which is inextricably bound up with the land of Israel.”

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said Oct. 25 that the final message of the Synod of Bishops reflected the opinion of the synod itself, while the remarks by Bishop Bustros were to be considered his personal opinion.

Father Lombardi told reporters the final message was “the only approved written text” issued by the synod.

“There is a great richness and variety of contributions offered by the synod fathers that, however, should not be considered as the voice of the synod in its entirety,” he said in the statement.

Bishop William Shomali, the auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem, said that the concluding statement “could have been more balanced,” but stressed that it was “a positive statement from a religious point of view” toward the Jewish people.

“It underscores the importance of interreligious dialogue and the importance of our common values, and especially the Old Testament,” Bishop Shomali said.

The statement, he said, condemns both anti-Semitism and religious extremism. Bishop Shomali said Israelis should not have been shocked by the statement’s wording on “the occupation.”

“This has been the Vatican’s stance throughout the occupation,” he said. “The Church believes in the Palestinians’ right to self-determination. This is nothing new.”

The Vatican has had full diplomatic relations with Israel since 1994. The Church gained legal status there in 1997. During the Palestinian uprising, the Vatican defended Israeli rights to live without the threat of terrorism and the Palestinians’ right to a homeland.

Even so, “the paragraph on the occupation was long and might have led to an imbalance,” Bishop Shomali acknowledged. “We should have mentioned that in Israel there is complete religious freedom, and that there are many Israeli people working for peace and who help Palestinians.”

Said Bishop Shomali, “This would have balanced the negative statements.”

Michele Chabin writes from Jerusalem.

CNS contributed to this report.