World Jewry is facing an interfaith crisis with Christians and Muslims over the anti-Jewish tirade spouted by Bashar Assad in the presence of Pope John Paul II, who failed to repudiate the Syrian president.
Anxious and irate Jewish leaders this week called for an unprecedented interfaith summit and dashed off letters imploring the Pope to renounce the stunning remarks by Assad. Experts say Assad has elevated anti-Jewish religious charges to dangerous levels.
image2goeshere The Jewish officials are aghast that Christian leaders, including the Pope, are keeping silent about Assad’s remarks and other recent declarations that Jews persecuted and killed Jesus — a charge that many thought was eradicated from Christian theology.
“It’s open season on Jews,” said veteran Jewish interfaith expert Rabbi James Rudin.
Last Saturday, with the Pope John Paul II alongside him and perhaps a billion people watching the event broadcast around the world, Assad not only repeated the centuries-old Christian blood libel charge that Jews killed Jesus, but also added a new Islamic twist: that Jews were responsible for the death of the prophet Mohammed, the founder of Islam.
What has angered Jewish leaders is that the 81-year-old Pope, who has spent his 23-year papacy reinforcing the 1965 Vatican teaching eliminating the deicide charge against Jews, allowed Assad’s message to go unchallenged.
Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls stated “the Pope will absolutely not intervene. The Holy See’s position against anti-Semitism is well known and has been stated thousands of times.”
Vatican defenders also argued that the Pope never comments on political rhetoric espoused by his hosts.
But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, charged that the Vatican is “coming close to being guilty of the sin of silence.”
Foxman called for an emergency Christian-Jewish summit within the next 30 days in Washington to discuss the failure of Christian interfaith leaders to speak out and defend Jews. In the last month there have been several high-profile anti-Jewish attacks, including one in a “B.C.” comic strip and one by Knicks player Charlie Ward.
“The silence is deafening,” he said. “I’m calling for a consultation of Jewish and Christian organizations long involved in the interfaith dialogue … to discuss the current revival of deicide accusations in some segments of the Christian community that has occurred without comment from Christian leadership.
“It’s time for us to assess whether this manifestation is a revival, or an aberration, or is it still in the Christian conscience, and still actively taught and preached and a new generation is finding it difficult or impossible to condemn.”
Foxman said the Pope has a responsibility to speak because “the Vatican provided Assad the platform, the megaphone and the respectability. For the Vatican to stand there silently and not condemn and reject [Assad] is unacceptable and irresponsible.”
Yehudit Barsky, the director of Middle East Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said it is “imponderable” that the Pope would be silent while a head of state like Assad could spout “falsehoods about Judaism in front of 1 billion Christians.”
As if to illustrate her point, Greek Orthodox metropolitan Saba Esber, a Syrian church bishop noted: “The Pope is very important. When he says something, a lot of people listen.”
John Paul went to Syria last week on a religious pilgrimage retracing the steps of St. Paul, the first century Jew who converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus. While welcoming the Pope last Saturday, Assad spoke of “the murder and torture of Palestinians” and accused Israel of “aggressing against Muslim and Christian holy sites in Palestine, violating the sanctity of the Holy Mosque [Al-Aqsa], of the church of Sepulchre in Jerusalem and of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.”
Then he added: “They try to kill the principle of religions with the same mentality that they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray and kill the prophet Mohammed.”
Syrian Religion Affairs Minister Muhammad Ziyadah later added: “We must be fully aware of what the enemies of God and malicious Zionism conspires to commit against Christianity and Islam.” The Pope responded with prepared remarks calling for reconciliation and peace.
But on Monday, the U.S. State Department condemned Assad’s remarks as unacceptable.
“There’s no place from anyone or from any side for statements that inflame religious passions and hatred,” it said.
Clearly the harshest Jewish reaction was directed at Assad, but the Pope was the focus of Jewish dismay.
An international Jewish interfaith group that just last Friday had completed a “positive” four-day conference with Vatican leaders, also called on the Pope to condemn Assad’s attack.
In a softly worded letter Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, asked the Pope to “respond in the very near future” about Assad’s “deeply offensive racist statements that constituted a blood libel of the Jewish people … reminiscent of the most contemptible falsehoods concocted by the Nazis.”
“We deeply regret the difficult position in which his remarks have placed your Holiness… “We understand your reluctance to respond at that time,” the letter stated.
But other Jewish groups were more forceful.
“We regret that no one in the official Vatican delegation denounced the comments and the embarrassment to the Pope,” stated the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the leading national Jewish umbrella group. “Silence on the part of leaders of all faiths is unacceptable and abets those who spread hatred and racism.”
In Israel, President Moshe Katsav called Assad an anti-Semite and urged the Vatican to respond. Last month Assad enraged Israelis by saying Israeli society was “more racist than the Nazis.”
Katsav suggested that Assad — an opthalmologist by training — return to school to learn history.
“Just as the Vatican cleared the Jewish nation of the blood libel — responsibility for murdering Jesus — so the Vatican has to respond to Assad’s remarks and to correct his historic mistake,” Katsav said.
Jeffrey Woolf, an Israeli expert on Christian-Jewish relations at Bar Ilan University, said the Vatican would have to condemn the remarks officially or the “silence would indicate consent. I’m sure the Pope is aware of that.”
In the 1965 Vatican document called Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church dismissed the deicide charge and decried “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
But American Catholic response to Assad was mixed. New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler, the Church’s leading American interfaith expert, declined to discuss Assad’s remarks, instead questioning Jewish criticism of the Pope.
“He is saddened because this kind of attack on the Holy Father has no positive result,” his spokesman said. “Cardinal Keeler thinks the Pope’s efforts to bring peace in the region should be recognized.”
Father James Loughran, Cardinal Egan’s Jewish liaison, who last week was appointed to the Vatican’s Commission on Religious Relations with Jews, said, “I am appalled. It was a vulgar thing to do and a total misrepresentation of Christianity. What a terrible way to treat your guest. I think it’s rather insulting.”
But he saw no reason for the Pope to challenge it directly. He also questioned what Jews expected from John Paul.
“I don’t think it’s helpful for the Pope to jump into any kind of minefield here,” he said, calling Assad’s anti-Jewish comments part of the “nasty vitriolic political comments being hurled back and forth in the Middle East.
“I don’t know what [Jewish] expectation is. The Pope sat there as a guest who has to listen to all of this. To then engage Assad in something, I don’t know how it would have worked. I think it shows the world where Assad is coming from.”
He contended that John Paul’s remarks calling for educating young people not to use religion for hatred and war was sufficient.
Responding to Assad saying Jews betrayed Jesus, Eugene Fisher, director of Catholic Jewish Relations for the National Council of Catholic Bishops, said, “I would say that they are both morally appalling and historically false. The New Testament speaks of only a single Jew “betraying” Jesus, and of the fact that the Romans had to arrest Jesus at night for fear that the citizens of Jerusalem would be enraged at the arrest because Jesus was so popular.
Regarding the Pope not challenging Assad, Fisher said: “The Pope never, ever responds to things said by local politicians on these state occasions. He is a guest and that is bad protocol from the Holy See’s point of view. He always says what he came to say to the people of that country, no more, no less, entirely unaffected by what the politicians and dictators might say. So this is simply one of scores of examples of a very consistent and old Vatican policy.”
Fisher stressed that the Catholic Church has condemned anti-Semitism as sinful and that “to impute collective guilt on the Jewish people for Jesus’ death is anti-Semitic.
“President Assad will need to examine his own conscience to see if he falls under that category or merely sounded like a fool who does not know much about New Testament history or Catholic theology, yet ventured beyond his knowledge into unknown terrain and got lost. The Pope cannot do this for him, even if he was a Catholic.”
Meanwhile, it was nearly impossible to get any from American Muslim representative groups or Muslim scholars on the issue of Assad’s charge of Jews betraying and trying to killing Mohammed.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council, the American Muslim Council and the American Muslim Political Affairs Coordinating Committee did not return repeated phone calls by The Jewish Week.
One Muslim scholar said that Assad’s charges about Mohammed seemed to be referring to the story in Islamic tradition about a Jewish widow who tried to poison Mohammed after his forces kill her husband.
“She gave him poisonous food, which contributed to his death,” according to Khalid Duran, author of a controversial book issued last week by the American Jewish Committee that explains Islam to Jews.
Duran said it appeared that Assad was taking the well-known Muslim tale from the Sirah of Ibn-Ishaq, one of the early biographies of Mohammed, and giving it new theological prominence. “Assad is corrupting Islamic tradition,” he said.
Duran said this kind of theological corruption is common among Islamic fundamentalist radicals, like Hamas.
“They make up new theology all the time,” he said. But Duran was surprised to hear it from Assad, who “is a modern young man and knows little about religion.”
Duran said that had such a charge against Jews been accepted in Islam in past centuries, “then Jews would have suffered in the Muslim world just like they suffered in Christian world.”
“It’s unfortunate we should imitate the Christians,” he said.
- Yehudit Barsky
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Bashar Assad
- John Paul
- British Columbia
- Eugene Fisher
- Moshe Katsav
- Middle East Affairs
- Holy Mosque
- Saba Esber
- Joaquin Navarro-Valls
- Muhammad Ziyadah
- Charlie Ward
- Khalid Duran
- Christian Jewish
- Edward Egan
- James Rudin
- Seymour Reich
- John Paul II
- Abraham Foxman
- Staff Writer
- Israel News
- Catholic Church
- Department of State
- Anti-Defamation League