Israel and the Catholic Church have come to blows again, this time over what Israel sees as the “anti-Israel” tone of a two-week synod of Catholic bishops on the Middle East, which has just ended in Rome.
At the center of the dispute are comments made by Greek Melkite Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, a leading figure of the synod, who warned at a closing press conference Oct. 23 that Scripture cannot be used to allow Jews to return to Israel at the expense of Palestinians.
“The Holy Scriptures,” he said, “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.” He added that Christians “cannot speak of the 'promised land' as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people” as this promise “was nullified by Christ.”
“There is no longer a chosen people,” Bustros continued. “All men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”
Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee called for a “clear repudiation” from the Vatican, saying the archbishop’s remarks reflected “either shocking ignorance or insubordination” in relation to the Second Vatican Council declaration, Nostra Aetate, which opened an era of improved Catholic-Jewish relations. The declaration, he said, “affirmed the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, which is inextricably bound up with the land of Israel.”
Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in an Oct. 24 statement the archbishop’s comments were “appalling” and “a libel” and called on the Vatican to distance itself.
He also criticized the meeting in general, saying Israel was disappointed that “this important synod has become a forum for political attacks on Israel in the best history of Arab propaganda." The meeting, he said, had been “hijacked by an anti-Israel majority."
The Vatican hasn’t issued a formal statement in response to Ayalon and Rosen’s comments, but said “a concise expression of the positions of the synod” can be found in the synod’s final message.
It stressed that individual contributions made by the synod participants “should not be regarded as the voice of the synod as a whole.” (Bustros’s comments were made in response to a question from a journalist.)
Rabbi Rosen, who had addressed the bishops the week before, told Newsmax on Oct. 25 that he accepted the Vatican’s clarification, but added it “does not exempt the Vatican from reprimanding Bustros and reiterating the official position regarding the Jewish people.”
Tensions had been brewing throughout the synod, convoked by Benedict XVI to look at the challenges and hopes for the struggling Christian minority in the region.
From the start, the special assembly’s mostly Arab bishops roundly criticized Israel for approving a new bill requiring citizenship seekers to swear allegiance to Israel as a "Jewish and democratic state."
The chorus of disapproval lasted to the very end of the synod, with criticisms coming from the meeting’s most senior figures, including Bustros and a patriarch whom Benedict XVI named a cardinal last week.
The synod of bishops provoked further Israeli ire when discussions turned to the “Kairos Document,” an ecumenical statement drawn up earlier this year by Christian leaders (though not endorsed by the Catholic Church) that is highly critical of Israel. It suggests a disinvestment strategy similar to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.
The last straw for the Israelis were the remarks of Archbishop Bustros.
The synod’s final message treats both Israelis and Palestinians with equanimity, noting the suffering and concerns of both peoples.
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