With preparations under way for Pope John Paul’s historic Millennium visit to Jerusalem next March, the question of the Vatican’s political position on the future of the Holy City takes on greater significance.Some Jewish leaders may not like what they hear. Talking to Jewish interfaith leaders at recent conference in Washington, D.C., Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran advocated that all the "holy places" in Israel be put under "international guarantees" of access.
"The Holy See therefore strictly favors a ‘special internationally guaranteed statute’ for the most sacred areas of the city, in order in the future to preserve and protect the identity of the Holy City in its entirety and in every aspect," Tauran said in his March 10 speech.
He added that the proposal would include "shrines outside the Old City and beyond Greater Jerusalem, in Israel as well as in the West Bank."
Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, called the comments "murky," "troubling" and unnecessary. "Who would guarantee this," Rabbi Rudin asked, adding he believes Israel has established a good record of supervising the holy sites of the three Western religions since the 1967 war.
Tauran also seems to have sent a double message about the Vatican’s position on injecting itself into the debate over the future of Jerusalem. Tauran "strongly reaffirmed the Vatican position that East Jerusalem is illegally occupied by Israel," according to a press release distributed by the American Committee on Jerusalem. ACJ is a Washington-based, Arab-American group.
In a meeting with American Muslims hosted by the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding in Washington, the ACJ said that Tauran called for "the recognition of Palestinian political rights in Jerusalem."
But Rabbi Rudin said that during a separate meeting with Jewish officials, Tauran rejected any involvement by the Vatican in the political final-status talks for Jerusalem.
"You may have found a contradiction here," the rabbi told The Jewish Week.
The pope has long expressed the desire to visit the birthplace of Abraham in modern-day Iraq, Mount Sinai in Egypt (one of several locations believed to be the real biblical mountain), and the places where Jesus was born (Bethlehem), preached (Nazareth) and was crucified (Jerusalem).
Meanwhile, the Vatican appears to have stepped up its offensive against Jewish groups that criticize it. The dispute comes as Jewish interfaith groups are scrambling to respond to the Vatican declaration that it no longer will work with the Jewish interfaith coalition known as IJCIC because of its strong ties to the aggressive World Jewish Congress.
Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the Vatican’s top Jewish liaison, during a speech in Rome last week restated his headline-making criticism of certain Jewish interfaith groups, saying they are risking the future of Catholic-Jewish dialogue by attacking the Church’s Holocaust policies. He focused on Church plans to elevate World War II Pope Pius XII to sainthood despite opposition by some Jewish leaders. The leaders say the pope did not do enough to save Jews during the Holocaust and worked too closely with the Axis forces.
Such opposition has "provoked not a little resentment," said Cassidy, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, at the March 23 symposium.
Supporting Cassidy was Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, the Vatican-appointed scholar in charge of research on the Pius XII case.
Cassidy and Gumpel said allegations that Pope Pius was silent and inactive in the face of the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews easily can be proven false with a little research.
Father Gumpel said he has studied dozens of petitions for beatification and canonization over the past 20 years "and I can say I believe this man was a saint."
Gumpel said it is true "Pius never wanted to use the word ‘Jews,’ " when defending Hitler’s victims, "but he had good reason not to; he knew Hitler became enraged and exploded when he heard the word and his attacks became harsher."
Responding to criticism that Pius didn’t protest loudly or explicitly enough, Gumpel said: "If one is certain his public protest would have no positive outcome (a zero-point-zero percent chance) and even could aggravate the situation, then the wise man stays silent."
At the same time, the main American Jewish defense agencies are weighing whether IJCIC should continue. As to the Vatican’s criticism of the WJC-IJCIC tie, IJCIC secretary Leon Feldman said that despite the coalition’s stationery, which lists WJC president Edgar Bronfman as IJCIC chairman, the title really belongs to Geoffrey Wigoder in Israel, who was elected chairman five years ago.