VATICAN CITY – Rabbi David Rosen delivered a historic speech on Wednesday to
Pope Benedict XVI as over 250 bishops gathered in the Vatican’s Synod Hall for
the Special Assembly on the Middle East On Thursday, Sunni and Shi’ite
These three religious leaders are the only
non-Christian guests at the October 10- 24 synod. In different ways, they each
painted a picture of a difficult but possible coexistence between the three
monotheistic religions in the cradle of their birth, based on recent advances in
interreligious dialogue and reciprocal respect for religious and cultural
Rosen, adviser to Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, and the American
Jewish Committee’s international director for interfaith affairs, was chosen as
world Jewry’s sole representative.
He is the second rabbi to have been
thus honored, preceded at the 2008 Synod on the Bible by Haifa Chief Rabbi
She’ar Yashuv Cohen.
After speaking, Rosen, accompanied by Israel’s
Ambassador to the Holy See Mordechay Lewy and this reporter, who is also the
AJC’s liaison to the Holy See, met privately with the pope.
thanked Benedict for his continued commitment to the Catholic Church’s
respectful dialogue with Judaism, and the pope noted with appreciation Rosen’s
“empathy with suffering on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and
his “consideration for the importance and wellbeing of Christians ‘as a
barometer of the health or infirmity’ of societies in the Middle
In his speech, Rosen paid tribute to the Israeli Christians’
achievements in education and their outstanding role in “promoting
interreligious understanding and cooperation in the country.”
that although he was “fully conscious of the carnage of the recent past in the
streets of our cities” and the “ongoing threats... from those openly committed
in the destruction and extermination of Israel..., we must strive to do all we
can to alleviate hardship..., especially as they pertain to the Christian
communities in Jerusalem and environs.”
He went on to say that “for me
personally as an Israeli Jerusalamite, the distressing situation in the Holy
Land and the suffering of so many on the different sides of the political
divide, is a source of pain...,” even though “it is used and abused to heighten
various tensions that go well beyond the geographical context of the conflict
The speeches Thursday by the Shi’ite representative, Iranian
Ayatollah Seyed Mostafa Mohaghegh Ahmadabadi, professor of law and a member of
the Iranian Academy of Sciences, and the Sunni representative, Muhammad
al-Sammak, political councillor to the mufti of Lebanon, revealed substantial
differences between them.
While Ahmadabadi ostensibly embraced respect
for cultural and religious diversity and the necessity for interreligious
understanding, because “we share each other’s destinies,” Sammak took a
realistic look at the lack of “equal citizenship” for Christians in many Middle
East countries and the “misunderstanding of the spirit of Islamic teachings”
that lead to “negative intellectual and political content” and “worrisome and
harmful actions bad for us all” resulting in Christians emigrating and a
“culture of extremism” for Islam.
In calling Christians “pioneers of
modern Arabic renaissance,” Sammak made a brief reference to their also being in
“the forefront to confront and resist occupation, defend violated national
rights, especially in Jerusalem and in occupied Palestine in
Chatting with the press before going to the synod, Ahmadabadi
spoke of the Koranic teaching of respect for Christianity and Judaism, then
proceeded to attribute the origin of contemporary Islamic and Christian
fundamentalism to Israeli fundamentalist groups.
These were the only
references to Israel made by the two Muslim representatives – aside from
including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a long list of causes for unrest
affecting Christian life in a context that largely condemned extremism and
defended “true” Islamic teachings.
Regarding freedom of conscience, a
difficult and recurring theme of the synod, both men pointed to the historic
origins of negative attitudes by Muslim countries towards conversions from
Islam. Due to past wars between Islam and Christianity, conversion was equated
“This concept must be changed,” Sammak said, pointing out
that the Koran forbids the coercion of conscience and does not recognize coerced
adherence to Islam.
Asked whether he agreed with Rosen’s statement that
Christians could become “blessed peacemakers in the city whose name means
peace,” the Lebanese political councillor replied, “I subscribe blindly to
anything said by Rabbi David Rosen.”
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