Panel urges steps toward Vatican recognition of Israel Joint talks at St. Mary's end with agreement.


In what Jewish leaders hail as a breakthrough, a Vatican commission has joined world Jewish leaders in urging progress toward Vatican diplomatic recognition of Israel.

The declaration was part of a statement issued yesterday at the end of an international meeting at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park. The meeting was the first in the Western Hemisphere between the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee for Inter-Religious Consultations.

Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress in New York, said the joint communique on Vatican diplomatic recognition of Israel was "the first time any such statement has been joined in by our Vatican partners."

The statement acknowledges that only the Vatican Secretariat of State and the government of Israel can negotiate the matter. But Mr. Steinberg said he believes yesterday's action indicates that "in the future we will see such diplomatic recognition."

Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore, a delegate, agreed that the formal statement was significant but said its sentiment was not unprecedented. Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, a member of a commission of the Vatican Secretariat of State, expressed a similar hope after a Middle East trip in January.

The Vatican maintains official contacts with Israel but has withheld symbolically important diplomatic recognition. The Vatican's hesitation stems from Israel's unsettled borders, concerns about Palestinian rights and fears that diplomatic relations could result in reprisals against Arab Christians in the Middle East.

But "more of these questions are beginning to be resolved," largely because of Middle East peace talks within the last year, said Archbishop William H. Keeler.

He is moderator of the Catholic-Jewish discussion in this country and has wide experience in relations between the two faiths. Earlier in the meeting, he urged that Israel be more sensitive to the position of Christians as a minority within Israeli borders.

The joint statement also included a call for opening Vatican archives of documents from the period of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust to "serious scholars on a case-by-case basis. . . ."

The meeting at St. Mary's was the 14th since the international conversation started in Paris in 1971 as a response to the Second Vatican Council calling for an end to anti-Semitism and cooperation with other faiths. The talks have proceeded along two tracks -- deepening the understanding of each faith for the other and pursuing ways in which the two can collaborate on a moral and social agenda.

Much of the work of interfaith understanding focuses on how each faith portrays the other in teaching children and training clergy. Catholic texts no longer bear the "teaching

of contempt" for the Jews, said Judith Banki of the American Jewish Committee. But she said Catholic teaching could go further in presenting the development of Judaism since the advent of Christianity.

On the Jewish side, Christianity is not maligned but often ignored, Ms. Banki said. Jewish teaching about Christianity should include the advances in interfaith relations since the Second Vatican Council, she said, "so Jewish kids don't grow up thinking that the Inquisition and the expulsion [of Jews] from Spain [500 years ago] is the end of Catholic-Jewish relations."

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