A two-week meeting of more than 200 Catholic bishops from Muslim countries concluded last Saturday with a joint communiqué urging Israel to end its “occupation” of Arab lands and to accept a United Nations directed two-state solution.
The communiqué further instructed the Jewish state to not use the Bible to justify “injustices” against Palestinians.
Pope Benedict XVI called the conference so that the bishops could discuss the increasing number of Christians who are fleeing Middle Eastern countries.
The concluding comments of the bishops focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a central reason for the flight of Christians from the region.
But, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where the Christian population has increased — up nearly 50 percent over the last 20 years.
The communiqué references “the Palestinians who are suffering the consequences of the Israeli occupation: the lack of freedom of movement, the wall of separation and the military checkpoints, the political prisoners, the demolition of homes, the disturbance of socio-economic life and the thousands of refugees.”
The bishops further stated, “recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.”
At a Vatican press conference following the release of the communiqué last weekend, the archbishop in charge of the committee, Lebanese-born Monsignor Cyril Salim Bustros of Newton, Mass., expanded on the sentiment, stating: “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.”
“We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people,” he continued. “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.”
The bishops’ communiqué does not yet have authority in the Catholic Church, but is considered to be a pastoral guide. It will be reviewed and edited by the pope, and appear as a papal document at a future date.
Seeing the communiqué and Bustros’ subsequent comments as an “attack on Israel,” Stuart Pavilack, executive director of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, said he does not believe the flight of Christians from the Middle East should be attributed to the conflict with the Palestinians.
“There has been a serious problem with Christians leaving the Middle East,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s because of the conflict, per se. There has been a growth of Christians living in Israel, but look at the other countries in the Middle East. Look at what Lebanese Muslims have done to Lebanese Christians. That population has greatly diminished from 40 years ago. In Saudi Arabia, you can’t find a church or a synagogue. The bishops are either ill-informed, or there is some agenda they are pushing.”
Two Muslim clerics addressed the synod, as did one Jewish representative, Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of inter-religious affairs.
“It is appalling that in their final statement of the Special Vatican Synod on the Middle East, the bishops did not have the courage to address challenges of intolerance and extremism in the Muslim countries in which they reside, and rather chose to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their first focus,” Rosen said in a statement posted on the AJC website.
“The comments of Archbishop Bustros reflect either shocking ignorance or insubordination in relation to the Catholic Church’s teaching on Jews and Judaism flowing from the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate,” Rosen continued. “That declaration affirms the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish People, which is inextricably bound up with the Land of Israel. We urge the Vatican to issue a clear repudiation of Archbishop Bustros’s outrageous and regressive comments.”
Deborah Fidel, executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, was dismayed by both the content of the communiqué and its timing — coming just days before Pittsburgh’s interfaith Pursuers of Peace Pilgrimage to Rome and Israel.
“The first rule of interfaith dialogue is you have to try to understand your partners as they see themselves,” she said. “This statement [by Archbishop Bustros] negates not only important teachings of the Nostra Aetate about Jews’ covenantal relationship with God, but also the centrality of the state of Israel for contemporary Jews. We look forward to a repudiation of the communiqué by the pope.”
Hoping to use the upcoming Pursuers of Peace Pilgrimage to open constructive dialogue about the communiqué, Rodef Shalom Congregation’s Rabbi Aaron Bisno sees the timing of the trip as “fortunate.”
Bisno is looking forward to a meeting with Cardinal Kurt Koch, who heads the Vatican office responsible for relations with Jews, while in Rome on the Pilgrimage.
“We can now take our concerns to our Catholic friends, and to the Vatican,” said Bisno. “We hope to bring this up to Cardinal Koch, and to hear from senior Vatican officials, in partnership with our Pittsburgh friends.”
While not commenting directly on whether the communiqué reflects the views of the Pittsburgh diocese, Father Daniel Straughn, secretary to Bishop Zubick, said his hope was to see peace and security for all.
“As for the Special Assembly for the Middle East, I agree that the emphasis must be for the peace and security for all people,” Straughn said. “My hope is that we all can one day live in a land of our own in security and peace.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)