Vatican marks historic end to official anti-Semitism

(AFP) The Catholic Church on Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of a landmark declaration by which it ended centuries of officially condoned anti-Semitism and urged bridge-building with all other faiths.  

The document "Nostra Aetate" (Latin for "In Our Time") most significantly repudiated the charge that all Jews should be held responsible for the death of Jesus.  

Adopted on October 28, 1965, by Pope Paul VI at the end of the ground-breaking Second Vatican Council, the declaration was credited with revolutionizing Catholic relations with Judaism.  

 "The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God," the document said, insisting that Christians should decry "hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."

Pope Francis led a special audience to mark the anniversary, stressing the document's significance for all interfaith relations.

"Mutual respect is a condition of interreligious dialogue and at the same time its goal: respecting another's right to life, to physical integrity, to fundamental freedoms – freedom of conscience, of thought, of expression and religion," Francis said.

"The world looks to us believers, it urges us to collaborate with each other" on finding "effective answers to issues" such as "peace, hunger, the poverty which afflicts millions of people (and) the environmental crisis."

Critics said "Nostra Aetate" did not go far enough to apologize for Christian persecution of Jews as so-called "Christ slayers" – a label that had fueled anti-Semitism in Europe.

But experts say it did a great deal to expunge the "blood curse", so-called because of a passage in the New Testament in which Jews are portrayed despairing that Jesus's "blood is on us and on our children."

'Most important moment'

Marking the anniversary, the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, called it "arguably the most important moment in modern Jewish-Christian relations."

The document, adopted by cardinals and bishops around the world, also reached out to Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.  

The "mutual awareness, respect and esteem" on which the improved Christian-Jewish relations are founded "are worth just as much for relations with other religions. I think in particular for Muslims," Francis said.

Interfaith expert Maureen Fiedler, writing for the National Catholic Reporter, said that the wider significance of "Nostra Aetate" was that it shows "common Church teaching CAN be changed."

She said it would raise the question within the Church of "why not (change) other teachings that are harmful to groups of people", just days after the closure of a council that stumbled over issues such as divorced people and homosexuals.

Pope Francis moved quickly after his election in 2013 to make overtures to Jews and Muslims, inviting two old friends from Buenos Aires – a rabbi and a Muslim professor – on a trip to the Middle East where he condemned religious hatred.  

And he was not the first pontiff to do so: John Paul II set up a series of interreligious meetings in Assisi in central Italy from 1986, which were taken up by his successor Benedict XVI, and saw atheists join the roundtable too.  

John Paul II also became the first pope in the history of the Church to make an official visit to a synagogue.

All three – John Paul II, Benedict and Francis – have prayed with imams in mosques. But the Catholic Church has found it harder to bridge differences with Islam than with Judaism.

Benedict XVI angered the Muslim world with a speech in 2006 in which he appeared to endorse the view that Islam is inherently violent, sparking deadly protests in several countries as well as attacks on Christians.  

Mending fences

Since then the Vatican's pontifical council for interreligious dialogue has been working overtime to mend fences with moderate Islam – a task made no easier by the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

Francis's suggestion at the end of last year that Muslims were not doing enough to counter terrorism was feared to have increased tensions between the West and Islam, though supporters said he was right to speak out.

"Violence and terrorism have bred an attitude of suspicion or even condemnation of religions," he said on Wednesday.

"In fact, although no religion is immune from the risk of fundamentalist or extremist deviations in individuals or groups, we need to look at the positive values that they live by and offer, and which are sources of hope," he said.


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