For the world's largest Christian institution, the Vatican chooses some odd bedfellows

Rome, Easter Saturday: The attention of Christians in the home of world Catholicism is fixed entirely on the imminent, glorious highlight of the Christian calendar Easter Sunday. Right?

Not this year. Easter Saturday 1997 saw a gathering in Rome focusing on a theme far removed from Jesus' death and resurrection. The largest Muslim shrine in Europe, the Grand Mosque, was the venue of a joint Islamic-Christian conference on Jerusalem.

Not surprisingly, work on the controversial new Jewish neighbourhood at Har Homa in Jerusalem was the main point of discussion. And equally expected was the fact the two-day meeting ended with a call by delegates for an end to what they described as the "judaisation" of Jerusalem.

Even more disturbing was the fact Israel was attacked for plans "to rebuild the Temple on the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque" a libel certain to inflame the Muslim world.

The gathering was attended by religious leaders, academics and politicians from the Vatican, Arab countries and Jerusalem. Delegates were received by the Vatican's foreign secretary. Messages of support were read from a number of Arab luminaries, including the kings of Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Libya's Muammar Gaddafi and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

After 2,000 years of persecution, inquisition, pogroms and attempted genocide, once again, representatives of Christendom sided with the enemies of the Jewish people. The underlying sentiment survives; only the tactics have changed.

In 1993, 45 years after the rebirth of Israel, the Vatican finally established ties with the Jewish state. It was a belated act which was only forthcoming because in its quest for peace, Israel agreed to make far-reaching and dangerous concessions to its Arab neighbours.

But following the bestowal of diplomatic recognition, the Holy See found itself strongly criticised by Arab states in no hurry to be at peace with Israel. Thus the Vatican has continued to criticise Israel for decisions such as that to build new housing in Jerusalem. It has also taken a series of measures to strengthen ties with the Arab and Muslim world.

The most recent, and possibly the most astonishing, of these latter steps was the establishment in March of full diplomatic relations with one of Israel's most vicious enemies, Libya, including the appointment of a nuncio, or papal ambassador, to Tripoli.

Not only was the move a slap in the face of the United States, which had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Vatican against embracing Gaddafi, it was also more importantly a breathtaking gesture from the world's largest church to a regime which callously mistreats and murders opponents at home, and sponsors terrorism abroad.

A Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said the decision was taken in part to recognise recent "positive results" in the area of religious freedom in Libya, home to some 50,000 Catholics.

The Vatican, he continued, also wanted to underscore its view that the Mediterranean should be "a region of peace, stability and security", and hoped the recognition of Libya would help Christian-Muslim relations.

A diplomatic source told Reuters that US officials had told the Vatican "they thought that it was not a good idea, that the United States was very concerned about support for terrorism and the suspicion that Libyans seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction".

Writing in The Jerusalem Post on March 19, defence analyst Daniel Leshem argued that, by granting such legitimacy to the Libyan regime, the Vatican had chosen to overlook its chemical weapons projects, its attempts to produce long-range ballistic missiles, and its treatment of opponents as evidenced by an incident reported in the British press last year, when "Gaddafi's son's bodyguards opened fire on spectators shouting anti-regime slogans at a football stadium in Tripoli, killing hundreds."

"If [the Vatican] wishes to be taken seriously as a moral influence," Leshem concluded, "it should consider carefully where it extends its recognition."


Not all Catholics apparently hold the views of some of the church's leadership when it comes to the Middle East. Catholic Irish pilgrims to the 1996 Christian celebration during the Feast of Tabernacles joined their Protestant compatriots in bringing letters of support from the mayors of Dublin and Belfast for Israel's commemoration of the 3,000th anniversary of King David's declaration of Jerusalem as the Jewish capital.

Also last year, five cardinals and 380 bishops in Brazil attended a council at which a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem on the occasion of Jerusalem 3,000 was prayed.

In Peru, a priest obtained 100,000 signatures of a proclamation blessing Jerusalem and presented it to the Israeli ambassador in Lima, Yoel Slepak.

These Catholics have chosen to translate into action the words of a prayer composed by Pope John XXIII some 40 years ago:

"We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people ... Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews ..."

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