Hearing tolerance

Despite its important messages, the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East was largely ignored by Israel and the Jewish world.

synod (photo credit: gregorio borgia / ap)
(photo credit: gregorio borgia / ap)
IN MID-OCTOBER NEARLY 180 Catholic cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, bishops and priests from the Middle East – most from Islamic countries – met at the Vatican with dozens of academics, 14 representatives of other Christian Churches, two Muslim representatives and one Jewish representative for a historic meeting of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.
First established in 1965 by Pope Paul VI after the end of Vatican II Council, the Synod is convened by the Pope to review topics of current importance and to assist the Church in analyses and decision-making. It was convened this year by Pope Benedict XVI, following his visits to the region last year, in order to strengthen Christian identity in the Middle East and dialogue with the Muslims and Jews of the region.
Hebrew, along with Arabic, Turkish and Farsi, was among the languages used for the liturgy, while the Synod itself was conducted in four languages – English, Arabic, French and Italian – with simultaneous translation.
And for the first time in its history, Vatican Radio produced a webpage in Hebrew on their Internet site with up-to-date summaries of the proceedings, translated for a Hebrew-speaking Jewish Israeli audience by Hanna Bendcowsky, an expert on early church history and acting executive director and program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish- Christian Relations (JCJCR).
Despite these promising signals from the Vatican the only news from the Synod most Israelis heard – if they heard any at all – was negative. Reports in Israel and the Jewish world focused on politics and a single comment from Greek Melkite Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, president of the “Commission for the Message,” who, at the final press conference of the Synod, said that Israel could not use the biblical claim of being the chosen people for the Promised Land as an excuse to occupy Palestinian land.
Yet the message of the Synod was quite different, according to Father David Neuhaus, Patriarchal Vicar for Hebrew-speaking Catholics in Israel, who addressed a standingroom only crowd, composed of both Jews and Christians, at an evening symposium about the Synod recently held at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel, a Jerusalem-based independent think tank. The official message of the Synod strongly denounced anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic sentiments and discussions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took up only a small part of the twoweek meeting. The message also affirmed the importance of reading the Old Testament and learning about the Jewish traditions in order to better understand the Jewish religion.
Admitting that when he first arrived in Rome as a Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizen “swallowed up in a sea” of Arabic-speaking Patriarchs and Bishops – some from countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel – he felt a bit of trepidation, Neuhaus said his concerns were laid to rest following his presentation about the tiny Hebrew-speaking Catholic community in Israel.
“I was amazed at the attention with which they listened to me, their enthusiasm for what I said. After I finished, I was swallowed up in a sea of Patriarchs and Bishops who came to express their happiness to know we exist,” he said. What was especially heartwarming, he continued, was that representatives from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq came to whisper sentences in Hebrew in his ear.
The Arab delegates to the Synod also heard Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs of the American Jewish Committee, speak as the Jewish representative, noted Neuhaus. Furthermore, recommendation 41 of the Synod encourages dialogue and cooperation with Jews “in order to deepen the human values of the religions of liberty, justice, peace and brotherhood.”
“We refute anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism and distinguish between politics and religion,” the Catholic leaders concluded in their message.
“It is not surprising that the Catholic Church is using this language but that the Catholic Church in the Middle East has fully adopted it,” said Neuhaus, noting that Church leaders in Israel feel it is important to raise awareness among Israelis and to draw attention to the Christian minority in Israel.
According to William Shomali, Auxiliary Bishop, Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, of the 330 million people living in the Middle East some 60 million are Christians, some two million of whom are foreign workers who live and work in oil-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Most belong to Eastern Churches such as the Coptic, Maronite, Chaldean, Melkite and Armenian Churches.
Today the Christian population of Israel is believed to stand at between 150,000 to 160,000, of whom 27,000 to 30,000 are not Arab. They belong largely to the Greek Orthodox, Melkite and Latin Catholic Churches, the latter two in communion with the Vatican. In addition, there is a strong Maronite presence, especially in the north, with smaller Coptic, Syrian, Chaldean and Armenian Catholic communities largely in Jerusalem, all of which are also in communion with the Vatican. In addition, there are smaller Protestant churches as well, including the Lutheran and Baptist congregations.
“The situation of the Christians in the Middle East is complex and [consists of] many differences in terms of religious freedom from one country to other. Some enjoy religious freedom, as in Israel, Jordan, Syria and Palestine; [some have] limited freedom of worship, in countries like Saudi Arabia. In some areas, as in Iraq, Christians may be killed for being Christians,” said Shomali.
BENDCOWSKY, A JEWISH RESIDENT of Jerusalem, translated the events of the Synod not only into Hebrew but also into an Israeli context for the Vatican Radio Hebrew language website. She views the invitation for her to come to the Vatican as a gesture to “create a better future for both groups.”
Even though the website received only some 1,000 hits – perhaps largely because there had not been enough advance publicity for the site – Bendcowsky said that the intention of the site had been to make sure the Israeli public was correctly and well-informed about the Synod proceedings and especially to provide Israeli journalists with information to produce broader pieces about the synod and its workings.
“Unfortunately that didn’t happen,” said Bendcowsky, noting that her work as a “cultural mediator” proved to be a challenge despite her experience and knowledge. “The little that was published about the synod in Israel was filtered through…reports from news agencies.”
Bendcowsky sat in on all the Synod sessions together with religious leaders from countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, and not only translated the words of the Synod but also its cultural context – what she calls the “real intended meaning” behind the text.
Her very presence at the Synod shows the importance the Vatican is giving to communicating with an Israeli audience, she told Vatican Radio during the Synod and may be connected to the fact that “events and statements from the Vatican and Catholic Church have been misinterpreted and misreported in the Israeli media.”
With relations between Jews and Christians, especially with the Catholic Church, so sensitive, it was important to Vatican officials that the reports be “absolutely right, that they come from the Church in Hebrew, without misunderstandings and misinterpretation of the events,” she said. The Vatican also wanted the translator to be a native Israeli Jew who would understand both the functioning of the church and the Israeli mentality.
“After the visit of the pope here there was a lot of misunderstanding and criticism. People didn’t listen to what the pope was saying and immediately just wrote whatever they wanted to.” As an example, she laments that rather than take note of the reference the pope made to “the People of Israel” in a speech in Jordan, which Bendcowsky termed as “very great” for a pope, Israelis were “too busy counting how many times he said ‘regretted’ and ‘tragedy’ in relation to the Holocaust.
“The message and subject of the Synod and the questions raised there are not only relevant to the Catholic Church but also to Israeli society and society in general,” Bendcowsky said. Many of the topics discussed, such as Diaspora relations, emigration of young people and respect between Eastern and Western traditions could be as relevant to Israeli Jewish society as well. “I would hope that we will be willing to listen more and be ready to learn from each other. I hope that the hand extended by the Catholic Church will be welcomed by us the Jews, with a willingness on our part to also explain ourselves to the Catholic Church,” she added.
Dr. Amnon Ramon, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, who helped organize the symposium together with the JCJCR and the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, says there were many indications in the Synod that the local Church and the Vatican are taking note of the growing role of the non-Arabic Catholics in the local Israeli Catholic community. Attention is also specifically being paid to the growing number of migrant workers – an issue which also concerned the Synod in regards to migrant workers also in the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia – as well as to non- Arab Catholic Israeli citizens.
“As a researcher I can see an increase of non-Arab Christians and the Church can’t ignore them,” Ramon tells The Jerusalem Report. While the Arab Christians continue to make up the majority of Christians with some 120,000 members, the official number of non- Arab Christians in Israel has reached 30,000. Ramon believes the actual number is higher.
“The problem of Christians in the Holy Land is not only Arab,” says Ramon. “This is quite new in recent years and includes also the issue of what to do with foreign workers and refugees.”
Leaders in the local Church, such as Neuhaus and Franciscan Custody Pierbattista Pizzaballa, have been proactive in bringing their needs to the attention of the local Church agenda, says Ramon.
The Jewish public has shown less interest in this growing community within their midst, he says. Yet he notes that he was encouraged by the large turnout of Jewish Israelis – mostly students and retirees, he assumes – at the recent symposium.
“On one hand [the Church] is accepting the non-Arab character of a segment of its faithful and [on the other hand] it wants to understand a bit more about the Jewish state. At the same time, they also have to relate to the Arab Muslim world,” says Ramon. “Their place in the Middle East is very complicated.”
By opening up to the more multifaceted reality of modern-day Israel, Jewish Israelis can also broaden their knowledge about Judaism, says Ramon.
“We are learning about the Church but also learning about ourselves—about Judaism and Judaism’s relationship with the other. We are like sisters,” Ramon adds. “It is very important to encourage it because it is in Israel’s interest that there remain here a Christian community. The connection of the Christian world to the city of Jerusalem as the birthplace of Christianity is one of Israel’s main economic and cultural resources.”
“In Jerusalem we have something they don’t have even in Rome,” says Ramon. “We have 13 very ancient Christian communities, including the Syrians, Ethiopians and Armenians. It is like a living museum of the Christian world today and one of the things that makes Jerusalem so unique. If we have holy places without people this is a danger and we will all lose, Israelis and Palestinians.”
And while Jewish Israelis may view the Christian presence in Israel as foreign, the Christians feel very much a part of the land from where their religion was born and where they have lived for generations since the founding of the Church, he adds.
Yet the status of the Christian community in Israel is not one of the main issues on the Israeli agenda, although it has the potential of being a “win-win” situation, he says.
“If the State of Israel and the Jewish sector understand that Christians have a place and we have to encourage them, Israeli society will enjoy it and they will enjoy it and if we have a solution with the Palestinians, they will also enjoy it,” says Ramon, noting that the challenges facing the Christians mirror those which Jews living in Christian countries face. “The status of the Christian minority is like a barometer to the state of tolerance which exists in this country. Sometimes we forget what it is like to be a minority. ”