"Today, as many adapt to a dissolution of values and some even ascribe to killing in the name of God, it is the obligation of spiritual leaders of different religions ... to denounce racism, anti-Semitism and terrorism and to appeal for peace between the peoples," Jewish and Catholic leaders declared in a joint final statement Tuesday (Jan. 30) night, as the meeting wrapped up in an elegant conference center off the Champs Elysees.
Hosted by the European Jewish Congress, the interfaith meeting was conceived two years ago, when Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land. Now, some religious leaders suggest it will lay a foundation for future discussions, perhaps including members of Europe's Muslim community as well. "It's easier to meet as three. We're already used to meeting, Jews, Christians and Muslims in France," said Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, who supports a European meeting among the three faiths. Plans are already under way for a Jewish-Muslim conference in France, he said.
The Paris conference was the latest step in a slow and painful post-war reconciliation between the continent's 286 million Catholics and 2.5 million Jews, including the gradual establishment of interfaith councils in different European countries."There is the memory of the past, which remains what it is," said Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, in an interview. "But there is an engagement of the Catholic Church to overcome what is now recognized as an act of deviation."
"Now, it's not enough for our generation to remain in the position of guilt, but to retain a memory of what shouldn't happen in the future," he said. "These last decades, the example of John Paul II has opened a way to look at Jewish people and Christianity which will eventually bear fruit."
From Rome, the pope sent a message of support for the meeting, calling on Jews and Catholics to transmit lessons of tolerance and peace to future generations "so that man never despises his brother, and war and conflict are never conducted in the name of an ideology that abuses a culture or a religion."
But few expected the reunion to bridge long-standing differences, and it didn't. Jewish leaders praised the pope's spiritual mission to build bridges between the faiths, and his millennium apology for sins committed over the centuries by members of the Catholic church. But Jews and Catholics remain at odds over whether his predecessor, wartime Pope Pius XII, did enough to prevent the Holocaust.
Relations are also jarred by more recent events, including a resurgence of anti-Semitism in parts of Europe. "From a superficial point of view, we could say relations in Poland between the two religions are worse today than five years ago," said Jan Grosfeld, who teaches a course on Jewish-Christian dialogue at the Catholic University of Warsaw.
Poland's wartime scars were reopened two years ago, when a newly published book suggested that local Poles, not Nazis, were responsible for the massacre of Jews in the village of Jedwabne. Today, Grosfeld said, "People still jeer at enemy football teams as `Jews.' We have anti-Jewish graffiti, even though we hardly have any Jews left. But in the long run, exposing all this makes our relations healthier--with God and with others."
In France, some Jewish activists also argue the Catholic church should more forcefully condemn a resurgence of anti-Jewish attacks, many staged by Muslim youths influenced by events in the Middle East. "The Catholics should play a moderating role between Jews and Muslims in Europe," said French Jewish activist Yossi Malka, who attended the conference. "If the church maintains an ambiguous position toward Israel, it may signal a carte blanche for Muslims to do what they want here."
The first steps toward post-war healing began in 1947, when Catholics and Protestants meeting in Switzerland drafted a charter of good Christian conduct toward Jews. Then a 1965 declaration by Vatican II affirmed the common spiritual heritage between Jews and Christians. In another landmark step, French bishops in 1997 apologized for the church's silence during France's wartime collaboration with the Nazis.
European Jews have also praised a newly published Vatican document, recognizing the Jewish wait for a messiah as legitimate.
Peggy Polk at the Vatican contributed to this story.