Catholics, Israelis discuss Christians in Holy Land

Vatican synod brought openness in dialogue between religions, despite Israeli media focus on comments about Jews no longer being chosen people.

December 16, 2010 03:08
4 minute read.
Catholics, Israelis discuss Christians in Holy Land

vatican jews pope 248 88 ap. (photo credit: )

Sometimes, newspaper headlines just don’t give the full picture.

That simple truth is what spurred the Assembly of the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land to initiate an event on Wednesday evening dedicated to explaining the intricacies of the two-week meeting of Middle East bishops in October, called by Pope Benedict XVI to discuss the plight of Christians in the Middle East amid a major exodus of the faithful from the region.

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Most of the Israeli media paid attention primarily to the remarks of Monsignor Cyril Salim Bustros, Greek Melkite archbishop of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Boston, Massachusetts, and president of the “Commission for the Message,” who, at the final press conference of the synod, said that “The Holy Scriptures 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.”

He also said, “We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people. This promise was nullified by Christ.

There is no longer a chosen people – all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”

That sentiment prompted Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon to call the synod a “forum for Arab propaganda.”

But should the synod not actually be a source of cautious optimism for Jews seeking dialogue with the Catholic world, as testimony not only from its binding final message, which bore statements to the essence of recognizing the covenant God forged with Abraham, but also from the existence of a prayer in Hebrew in the official prayer book at the synod? And what about the openness of bishops from hostile neighboring lands to hearing not only the bishops from the Holy Land had to say, but also what Rabbi David Rosen preached, as representative of the Jewish people? Does this indicate any change in the Holy See? To a packed auditorium of Jews and Christians at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, which alongside the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and the Jerusalem Center for Jewish Christian Relations (JCJCR) organized the event, Auxiliary Bishop of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem William Shomali, Custodian of the Holy Land Rev. Pierbattista Pizzaballa OFM, Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics Rev. David Neuhaus, Administrator of the Maronite Exarchate of Jerusalem Deacon Sobhy Makhoul and Hanna Bendcowsky of the JCJCR, spoke of their experiences from the synod, and the issues facing Catholics living in the Holy Land.

“To me, the most important message of the synod was the new spirit that arose from it, of an openness to dialogue among Christians and with other religions, to promote collaboration in the Middle East,” Shomali said.

Neuhaus spoke of his initial apprehension as an Israeli citizen among bishops from hostile countries such as Iran and Syria, fears that swiftly dispersed.

Rabbi Dr. Ron Kronish, director of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, spoke of the need to better educate Israelis about Christians and Christianity, while stressing the crucial role of the media in setting the public tone on such topics.

“The heads of the Catholic Church here feel that the synod’s messages were misunderstood,” Dr. Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, said ahead of the event.

“They are making an effort to explain the complexity of the situation, while raising the awareness of the challenges Catholics face here.”

Regarding the claim that disproportionate criticism was leveled in the synod at Israel, while the fate of Christians in some of the neighboring Muslim states is far worse, Ramon noted that the bishops’ ability to criticize such states is limited.

“There cannot be symmetry,” he said.

Current estimates evaluate the number of Christians in Israel (not including the West Bank) at 150,000, of whom some 70 percent are Catholics, predominately Melkite (Greek Catholic).

Of them, some 30,000 are Hebrew speakers.

Ramon noted the novelty of such an event taking place in Hebrew, evidence of the Catholic Church’s will to reach out to Israelis. Corresponding to that is the fact that Radio Vatican opened a special Hebrew section on their website, reporting on the synod.

Ramon, who is about to publish a book on Christians and Christianity in Israel, stressed the need to be sensitive to the Christians here, who are “a minority within a minority.”

“Sometimes, it feels as though we Jews forgot what it means to be a minority,” he said.

The event opened with a moment of silence in memory of Daniel Rossing, director of the JCJCR, who recently died.

Lisa Palmieri Billig contributed to this report from Rome.

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