Protect Christians and Jews, says major Catholic-Jewish conference

Statement decries European bans on circumcision, animal slaughter, calls for further education on Catholic efforts against anti-Semitism

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Pope Francis at the Vatican (photo credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope Francis at the Vatican (photo credit: AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

A major conference between the Catholic Church and leading Jewish representatives in Madrid called Thursday for both communities to support efforts at ending anti-Christian persecution and anti-Semitism in the Middle East and Europe.

The 22nd International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee meeting, which closed Thursday, brought together the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, as it has since 1971.

The joint statement released after the meeting called on the two groups to work together to combat anti-Christian persecution, and “to support efforts to guarantee full citizenship to all citizens regardless of religious or ethnic identity in the Middle East and beyond.”

Persecution of Christians has spiked in the wake of the upheaval in the Arab world. Syrian Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people. In Egypt, there has been a backlash against Christians by Islamist militants for their activism against former president Mohammed Morsi, ousted by the military on July 3 after a wave of massive protests against his rule.

“We encourage efforts to promote the well-being of minority Christian and Jewish communities throughout the Middle East,” the statement read.

The conference also expressed alarm over recent initiatives in Europe to ban male religious circumcision and ritual animal slaughter, which, if passed, would make observant Jewish and Muslim life next to impossible.

The Liaison Committee, or ILC, called for restrictions to be dropped, and addressed “moves to interpret ‘secularity’ and ‘secular society’ in ways that marginalize religious groups and individuals,” biblical scholar Murray Watson said, using recent moves in Quebec to forbid public servants from wearing religious garb in government offices or public settings as an example.

Watson, an expert on Catholic-Jewish relations, told The Times of Israel that the conference saw the fates of Jews and Christians as linked.

“I think that there is a growing awareness that whatever impacts on one community will almost inevitably have an impact on other communities,” he said.

The conference, themed on “Challenges for Religion in Contemporary Society,” took place as a European survey was released in which a quarter of the respondents — Jews from nine countries — said they avoid visiting places and wearing symbols that identify them as Jews for fear of anti-Semitism.

Calling it a sin, the conference’s statement said that the upcoming 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate in 2015 is an opportune time to reaffirm its denunciation of anti-Semitism.

The key point of reference for Catholic relations with the Jewish people, the 1965 declaration — which grew out of the Vatican II conference — stressed the religious bond shared by Jews and Catholics, reaffirmed the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, and called for a halt to attempts to convert Jews.

“We urge that anti-Semitic teachings be eliminated from preaching and textbooks everywhere in the world,” read the statement Thursday.

For a variety of reasons, Catholic outreach toward Jews and changes in the Church’s attitude toward Jews since Nostra Aetate are not widely taught in Jewish schools. The conference recommended that both Jewish and Catholic seminaries educate their students about the subject.

“As a new generation of Jewish and Catholic leaders arises, we underscore the profound ways that Nostra Aetate changed the relationship between Jews and Catholics. It is imperative that the next generation embrace these teachings and ensure that they reach every corner of the world,” the statement read. “We Catholics and Jews renew our commitment to educate our own respective communities in the knowledge of and respect for each other.”

The ILC is the official forum for dialogue between the Church´s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.

The organization was formed after the first international meeting between Catholics and Jews in 1970, and met the next year in Paris. It has convened regularly since, including meetings in Jerusalem around the Vatican’s recognition of Israel in 1994.

According to Watson, a member of the Canadian Christian-Jewish Consultation, the conference provides an international forum for Jewish and Catholic leaders to discuss issues of particular concern to each side, such as anti-Jewish or anti-Christian violence.

“[It] allows both sides to better and more accurately understand the faith-perspective of the other group, to seek clarifications…and to testify to the world community about the possibilities for dialogue and collaboration between differing religious groups,” he said.

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