WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 (RNS)--Just days after the Vatican released a declaration saying the salvation of non-Catholics is "gravely deficient," a group of Jewish scholars released a landmark statement Thursday calling on Jews to affirm their shared roots with Christians while acknowledging a "humanly irreconcilable difference" between the two religions.

More than 160 Jewish leaders and theologians signed the eight-point statement, which was drafted by the Baltimore-based Institute for Jewish and Christian Studies. Supporters heralded it as the first major response to overtures by Roman Catholic and Protestant churches to improve relations with Jewish groups.

The statement will be published in The New York Times and Baltimore Sun over the weekend.

While the timing of the Jewish and Vatican statements was largely coincidental, the language and tone of the two documents could not have been more different.

Where the Vatican statement attempted to draw differences between church teaching and other religions, the Jewish statement moved to affirm the shared roots and traditions between Judaism and Christianity.

"We respect Christianity as a faith that originated within Judaism and that still has significant contacts with it," read the statement, "Dabru Emet," which is Hebrew for "Speak the Truth."

"We do not see it as an extension of Judaism. Only if we cherish our own traditions can we pursue this relationship with integrity."

The statement went on to say that Jews and Christians worship the same God, seek authority and moral guidance from the same Scripture (the Bible), and both respect the Jewish claim on Israel. It affirmed that relations with Christians do not compromise Jewish faith.

In perhaps the most important section, Jewish leaders said Christians should not be held responsible for the Nazi Holocaust, even though some Christian leaders could have tried to stop it and "without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out."

Still, "Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity," it said.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, signed the statement and said Jews are long overdue for a reassessment of Christianity.

"Christians have come extremely far, especially when you juxtapose the past 30 years against the past 2,000 years of fratricide and enmity," Eckstein said. "Now it behooves us to take another look, to look at the commonalities, and not to have this siege mentality based on the Christians of the past, not the Christians of today."

Nonetheless, Eckstein and other Jewish leaders said they were perplexed by the Vatican's statement on salvation, a sentiment echoed by a number of non-Catholic Christian leaders who said the Vatican statement threatens to turn back the clock on ecumenical dialogue and muddy the theological waters.

The two statements represent both the fragility of interfaith relations and the significant progress made between Christians and Jews in the past 30 years.

Since the watershed Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has attempted to improve relations with Jews, and Pope John Paul II has made improved ecumenical relations a hallmark of his papacy.

But several sections of the Vatican statement--including that the Roman Catholic Church is the only "instrument for the salvation of all humanity"--raised ecumenical and interfaith eyebrows.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations--the umbrella group of Reform Jewish synagogues--said he was "troubled" by the Vatican's statement, especially in light of the Jewish declaration.

"The heart of the [Jewish] statement was the suggestion that both sides can recognize a measure of religious legitimacy in the other," Yoffie said. "[The Vatican statement] seems inconsistent with other statements made by the pope, and does raise some questions about the fundamental purpose of the [Jewish] statement."

A leading Catholic theologian, however, carefully pointed out that the Vatican statement was mostly talking about non-Christian religions--but not Judaism--and that Catholic teaching holds a special distinction for the Jewish people.

"What God is doing with the Jewish people and what God is doing with us are intimately related," said Eugene Fisher, who leads Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "They are not lines that never meet. There is one root, and that is biblical Israel, and there are two branches that are separate but intertwined--Christianity and rabbinic Judaism."

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