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Jewish World Review May 14, 2001 / 21 Iyar, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Pope John Paul IIís precious legacy was trashed by Vatican policy and Syrian hate -- IN recent years, a fierce debate has been waged by scholars and laymen alike about the alleged silence of the Vatican and Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust. Books and essays on this subject are being written and published seemingly every month.

But when historians come to write about what the Vatican said or did not say when a papal pilgrimage was used to promote an astonishing message of hatred and anti-Semitism, there need be no great debate about what actually happened. Pope John Paul IIís trip to Syria was seized upon by that countryís dictator as an opportunity to spread the worst kind of anti-Jewish libels to an international audience.

With the pope beside him, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that Muslims and Christians should join together against the Jews, ďwho try to kill the principles of all religions with the same mentality which they betrayed Jesus Christ and the same way they tried to betray the Prophet Mohammed.Ē

The pope said nothing to counter Assadís vicious attacks on the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

The Vatican said nothing later in reply to Assad.

The European countries said nothing.


The coming together of the 81-year-old pope with the 35-year-old second-generation Syrian strongman is more than a little ironic.

No other person in the post-World War II generation has done as much to further good relations between Jews and Christians as John Paul II. The personal impact of this man on the Catholic Church with regard to improving its attitude toward Jews cannot be overestimated.

From the beginnings of his ministry in the ashes of war-ravaged Poland in the 1940s until now, John Paul has been a unique voice of reason. His statements acknowledging Judaism as a valid religion and not merely a fossilized entity that served only to give the world Christianity has a profound effect on the way Christians understand their faith and its relationship with Judaism.

Without his tireless efforts, itís unlikely that the Vatican would ever have recognized the State of Israel and reconciled itself to a sovereign Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.

His visits to a Rome synagogue and to Israel itself were inspirational and historic events lending symbolic weight to the sea change in Catholic thinking that he represents. If it is possible to adopt a Holocaust-era phrase to a post-Shoah figure, then John Paul II is surely the most righteous of gentiles.

And yet, there he stood at the Damascus airport, an old, sick man barely able to read his prepared statement when Assad the younger cynically used him as nothing more than a prop.

When Assad raised the ancient canard of Christ-killer and threw in other invective aimed at delegitimizing Israel and the rights of Jews to live in peace and security, all the pope could muster was a feeble call for peace. Assad went uncontradicted, as did the mufti of Damascus, who used a later meeting with the pope at the historic Umayyad Mosque there to launch a similarly anti-Jewish tirade.

Just as bad was the Vaticanís decision to allow the Syrians to stage a propaganda event along their border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The pope journeyed to Kuneitra, a ruined city that saw terrible fighting in both the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, where he prayed in the shell of a ruined church.

The significance of Kuneitra is that, contrary to the terms of the 1974 cease-fire accords with Israel, the Syrians have deliberately chosen not to rebuild the town. In an architectural replay of the cynical way in which Palestinian Arab refugees have been kept homeless so as to be an object of sympathy and a tool in the war against Israel, so has Kuneitra been kept in shards.

The result of the popeís visit was an unprecedented propaganda triumph for the Assad regime. The young Assad, an immature version of his bloodthirsty paternal predecessor, was given both newfound legitimacy in the eyes of his people, as well as a place on the front pages of international newspapers.

It also gave Israelís enemies aid and comfort as the Arabs were able to parlay the popeís visit into yet another opportunity to get their message demonizing Israel across to a wide audience.

Now that the damage has been done, we can only wonder why this happened and how seriously this will impact the growing ties between the world Jewish community and the Catholic Church.

As to what lay behind both the trip to Syria and the popeís silence, the answers are not very hard to discern.

The churchís priority here was in aiding the Christian minority within the Arab world. Christians are in genuine danger throughout most of the Middle East and the Muslim world.

In Egypt, Christian Copts are subjected to a campaign of ongoing terrorism that the government of Hosni Mubarak is unable to stop. In Indonesia, Christians and other non-Muslims are similarly threatened. In Sudan, black Christians in the south are the victims of both a war of terror and efforts by the Muslim majority to murder and enslave the Christian and animist population.

In other Arab countries, such as Syrian-occupied Lebanon, as well as territory under the control of the Palestinian Authority, Christians are being driven slowly driven out and marginalized within society.

Thus, the church has a genuine interest in appeasing Arab opinion and promoting better relations between Muslims and Christians. Thatís why they saw the planned visit of the pope to a Damascus mosque (also a Christian shrine) as a chance to help Arab Christians.

But to do so at the expense of the churchís good name and the rights of Jews was a bad idea. The offense was further compounded by the Vaticanís arrogant dismissal of criticism of the popeís trip.

Has the Catholic Church made a conscious decision to downgrade relations with Jews and Israel to facilitate a rapprochement with Muslims? It is probably premature to make that assertion. But it cannot be denied that serious damage has been done.

This episode should also give pause to those who believe that all Israel must do to achieve peace is to make more concessions, such as handing over the strategic Golan Heights to Syria.

We should be under no illusions that ďDr. Bashar,Ē Israelís friendly neighborhood opthamologist, was just kidding. Heís not. The conflict is driven by hatred for Jews, not a dispute over a piece of land.

As for the pope, silence in the face of such despicable attacks on the Jews is exactly what we would never have expected from John Paul II. Above all other contemporary world leaders, someone who survived the Nazi reign of terror in Poland knows the dangers that Assadís statements represent. He knows that sometimes, evil words can lead to genocide.

It is, perhaps, understandable that this sad episode should happen during the popeís declining years. He is too frail, too weak, and probably should never have even attempted the tour that took him on the path of the Christian Apostle Paul.

Itís hard to believe that this great man of courage would have let an Adolf Hitler-wannabe like Bashar Assad make a monkey out of him had he been in his prime. But thatís exactly what happened.

For the moment, itís time to forget about whether or not the Vatican should apologize for the inaction of Pius XII. Sadly, what we need now is an apology for the silence of John Paul II.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin