This past Saturday, a synod of bishops in Rome tossed the theological equivalent of a hand grenade, threatening to blow up decades of efforts to improve Catholic- Jewish relations.

In a press conference at the Vatican, Monsignor Cyril Salim Bustros, a Greek Melkite archbishop from Boston and president of the Church’s Commission for the Message, launched a blistering attack against the very foundation of Jewish belief.

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“The Holy Scriptures,” Bustros declared, “cannot be used to justify the return of Jews to Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians, to justify the occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands.”

Not stopping there, he went on to state that “we Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people... There is no longer a chosen people.”

And so, in one fell swoop, a senior Church official sought to deny the unique, covenantal relationship between God and the Jews, rejecting the divine promise to restore the people of Israel to their Land. One cannot help but wonder: What Bible is the Vatican reading? Whichever one it is, it must be missing a few pages, as even a cursory glance at the Scriptures makes clear that the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel is indisputably ordained.

Take, for example, Isaiah 14:1-2: “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob; once again He will choose Israel and will settle them in their own land.” Or how about Jeremiah 11:5, where God says: “I will fulfill the oath I swore to your forefathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey...” And then there’s Ezekiel 34: 11-13. And Hosea 3:4-5. And Amos 9:14-15. And Obadiah 1:17, Zephaniah 3:19-20 and Zechariah 8:7-8.

YOU GET the point. But it doesn’t seem that the Catholic Church does.

After the Lebanese-born Bustros’s remarks caused a furor, the Vatican spokesman waited two days before issuing a mealy-mouthed statement which did little to calm the storm.

“If one wants a summary of the synod’s position, attention must currently be paid to the ‘Message,’ which is the only written text approved by the synod in the last few days,” the Vatican’s Father Federico Lombardi said. “There is also a great richness and variety in the contributions made by the fathers, but which as such should not all be considered as the voice of the synod as a whole.”

Lombardi’s efforts to contain the fallout won’t fool anyone. There is no getting around the fact that this convocation of bishops was called by the pope himself. Moreover, the perception around the world was that the Vatican had officially delegitimized Israel while assaulting Judaism itself. As Catholic writer William Doino Jr. noted: “In a statement meant to be fully and intensely Christian, Israel was singled out for blame and criticism. That’s not fair, much less Christian.”

Indeed, this entire episode is little more than a cheap bit of politics wrapping itself in the robes of religion. Bustros and his colleagues clearly have a political ax to grind with the Jewish state, and they shamefully do not hesitate to invoke the sacred for this most profane of goals.

My Christian friends tell me that the words “Palestine” and “Palestinians” do not even appear in the New Testament. So the learned bishops could not have come up with the idea of the “occupation of Palestine” while attending Sunday school.

Furthermore, by Bustros’s own definition, the founder of Christianity would also have to be considered an “occupier” and a “settler,” for according to Christian belief, Jesus the Jew was born and raised in Bethlehem.

That is the very same Bethlehem that Bustros would now like to see become part of a Palestinian state.

No matter how one looks at it, the synod’s unbridled insult to Israel and the Jewish people cannot be allowed to stand. If it is not denounced and corrected forthwith, it will quickly be exploited by Israel’s enemies to stir up still more hatred.

IN A letter to Cardinal-elect Kurt Koch, the newly-appointed head of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the Anti-Defamation League rightly singled out Bustros’s remarks as “the worst kind of anti-Judaism, bordering on anti-Semitism.”

It called on Koch to “swiftly and publicly correct Archbishop Bustros’s shocking and damaging statements,” and to clarify whether his “interpretation of the synod’s final report reflects the intention of the synod on these profound theological matters.”

I would take it one step further. Given the Catholic Church’s long and dark history of anti-Jewish persecution, it is only fitting that the pope himself speak out loudly and clearly on this issue. It is incumbent upon Pope Benedict to transform this turn of events into a profound opportunity to atone for what the Church has done to the Jewish people through the centuries.

Ironically, it was 45 years ago today, on October 28, 1965, that the Second Vatican Council approved a document known as Nostra Aetate, which heralded a sea change in the Church’s position toward Jews. In its wake, much has been accomplished in enhancing relations.

But Bustros and his hate-filled rhetoric now threaten to undermine nearly half a century of dialogue and progress. What a terrible shame that would be.

For while the Church may pride itself on preaching love and tolerance, when it comes to its attitude toward the Jews, it still has a long way to go.

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