Israel's chief rabbis meet with pope

Celebrate anniversary of landmark Vatican document on relations with Jews.

Israel's two chief rabbis met with Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of a landmark Vatican document on relations with Jews, and sought his support in fighting anti-Semitism and terrorism. Israel needs the Vatican's support at "this very dire hour" now that it has completed its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday. Israel's Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar called on the pope at his summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, in the hills south of Rome. The meeting followed the historic visit by Benedict to the central synagogue in Cologne, Germany, last month, only the second time a pope had entered a Jewish house of worship. During the visit, Benedict decried that the world was witnessing the rise of new forms of anti-Semitism. The visit also follows a diplomatic tiff between the Vatican and Israel that erupted over the pope's omission of Israel in a list of countries hit by terrorism. After Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon wrote a letter to the pope, Ben-Hur said the dispute was resolved. The meeting, the first between the pope and the two chief rabbis, was also significant because the German-born Benedict had in his youth been a member of the Hitler Youth. The rabbis would likely speak to the pope of the need for further dissemination and understanding of the landmark "Nostra Aetate" document adopted by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, Ben-Hur said. In the document, Latin for "In Our Time," the Vatican deplored anti-Semitism in every form and repudiated the "deicide" charge that blamed Jews as a people for Christ's death. The idea of Jewish guilt had fueled anti-Semitism for centuries. Ben-Hur said the document needed to be further understood, not only among the ranks of lay people but even among ordinary priests. In addition, the rabbis would likely bring up the need to combat anti-Semitism and terrorism, he said. "We're looking for common grounds, we're looking for common declarations," he said. "And true, while the church doesn't have teeth, it can definitely influence people through its declarations." Beyond the meeting, Ben-Hur said he hoped for an exchange of visits between the pope and Sharon. He said he also hoped to encourage bishops and cardinals to bring groups of pilgrims to the Holy Land to help revive the Palestinian and Israeli economies and "help change the psychology" of the region.