Chaldeans On Line

Between the Monastery and the Mosque

Wednesday, March 21, 2001

By Eliahu Salpeter

The relations of the Roman Catholic Church with Jews, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, are filled with contradictions. Pope John Paul II has done, and is still doing, a great deal to improve relations with "our older brother" - as he has described the Jewish people. But he and his associates still repeatedly underscore that the Catholic faith is the principal way to redeem the soul. And he has also defended Pope Pius XII, the target of very harsh criticism because of his behavior - notably his silence - during the Holocaust.As Islamic fundamentalism has gained strength, Christians in many Muslim countries have become victims of terrible persecutions. Yet the Catholic church is now trying to improve its relations with the regime in Iran, and a charitable organization of the Vatican has become one of the leading advocates of abolishing the sanctions on Iraq. And while the Pope demonstrates unprecedented warmth for Israel, his Church is active in favor of the Palestinians in order to protect Christians living in Arab countries. These contradictions are due at least partially to the internal conflict in the higher echelons of the Catholic Church between the conservatives and those somewhat less so.

The German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, makes sure to follow his supportive remarks for Jews with the "hope that the Jewish people will say 'yes' to Jesus Christ." Observers say the "Ratzinger era" is drawing to a close, and the weakening of his influence will lead to a greater openness on the part of the Catholic Church toward other religions and faiths. With the exception of a change of popes, Ratzinger's weakening influence may be the single most important development in the church in the 21st century. The relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel have always been influenced by three principal factors: One is theological and is related to the church's relationship with Judaism; the second factor is the need to consider the sensibilities of Arab countries out of concern for the fate of Catholics residing in them; and the third is the fact that Eretz Israel is the "Holy Land."

The Al-Aqsa Intifada has exacerbated the relationship between the Israeli authorities and the church institutions in the territories, with leading Catholic priests joining in the criticism of the Israeli occupation and the behavior of Israeli soldiers in particular. The Vatican's news agency clearly reflects both the criticism of Israel and the concern for the state of Christians in Islamic countries. The blockading of the West Bank caused a number of incidents when Israel Defense Forces (IDF) roadblocks prevented the passage of Christian clergymen on their way to conduct prayer services for the faithful in Arab villages, and even the opening of fire in a number of cases.

The news agencies and other Vatican media also give wide publicity to the suffering of the population in the territories. Last week, for example, Catholic World News wrote at length about medicine and food being kept from the people in the barricaded cities and about the damage to the water and telephone lines, which were defined as a "collective punishment." The church news agencies, however, generally include responses from Israeli spokespeople.

One of the harshest critics of Israel is the Latin Patriarch in Israel, Monsignor Michel Sabah, who wrote a Pastoral Letter about "the bloody events ... following the provocation of religious sensibilities at the Haram al-Sharif [referring to Ariel Sharon's late September visit to the Temple Mount]." Sabah's letter declared that, "The young people and older ones sacrificing their lives are not doing so in order to attack someone. They are only guarding their holy places, their freedom and their lives."

More worrying is the growing criticism recently noted in comments by the Pope himself. A few weeks ago, in a meeting with diplomats from 175 countries, he warned that the situation in the Middle East could get spiral of control. He spoke of "a continued injustice and contempt for international law that forbids holding onto territory by force."

Nevertheless, Catholic Church spokespeople have not spared their criticism from Israel's Arabs. In an interview published by one of the Vatican's news agencies, Brother David Yaeger, a senior member of the Franciscan order and a professor of church law in Rome was quoted slamming Israel's "arrogant attitude" during the talks with the Palestinians. But at the same time Yaeger expressed disappointment with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on the eve of the recent prime ministerial elections in Israel. In his moderate remarks about the Sharon government, Yaeger said it will have to "get rid of the most serious threat to Israel's relations with Christianity" - which is the permission given to build a mosque next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth.

The Vatican has given considerable publicity to the attacks on Christian communities and churches in the Muslim world. A survey of the events of 2000 published by the Vatican in early March said that 165,000 Christians have lost their lives in religious and ethnic clashes, especially in Indonesia, Sudan, East Timor as well as in Egypt and India.

The church has spared no effort to improve its status in the Muslim world. Aside from the repeated appeals to abolish the embargo on Iraq "for humanitarian reasons," it has also acted to foster relations with Iran. The Vatican Foreign Minister, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, visited Tehran in early March, the first Vatican visit on this level since the Islamic revolution there, and met with Iran's President Mohammed Khatami. In May, the Pope himself is expected to conduct an official visit to Damascus, where he will visit the Great Umayyad Mosque. He will be the first pope in history to visit the mosque.

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, published early in the year in New York, there are currently 1.9 billion Christians in the world, 1.2 billion Muslims and 14 million Jews. There are theological reasons for the new relationship the Catholic Church wants to create with the Jews, while the desire to improve relations with Muslims is considered a political need. It may be assumed that the dialogue with 14 million members of the Jewish faith will have more influence on the future of Christianity than its relationship with the 1.2 billion Muslims, because its relationship with Judaism affects the very soul of the Catholic faith

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