Just before the beginning of the Synod for Middle-East in Roma, the Ambassador of Israel to the Holy See give an exclusive interview to Jerusalem & Religions. Mordechai Lewy born on May 15, 1948, the day of Declaration of Independence of Israel, diplomat since 1975, has a long personal interest in Christian matters. As a graduate of Master degree in history, his field of expertise is the “Rise of monastic orders in the emerging medieval cities in Europe” and he get a good knowledge of Latin. So, his nomination as ambassador in the Holy See in May 2008 didn’t come as a surprise. Before, he was notably posted to Germany, Swede and Thailand. In 2004, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs assigned him to the Municipality of Jerusalem as the Mayor’s Advisor for Religious communities. And Mordechai Lewy is also an enthusiast specialist of pilgrims Christians tattoos and he’s happy to announce an exhibition on this topic which should be shown next year in Roma, Loreto and Jerusalem. This article is part of a Special report about "The Synode for the Middle-East" (http://www.jerusalem-religions.net/...).
- Just before the beginning of the Synod for the Middle-East, what is your feeling ?
First of all it is good to focus on the Christians in Middle East because they have a lot of problems. The Holy See regardes intra- ecclesiastical matters as top priority. I don’t think this leitmotiv will be overshadowed by politicized issues which are to a certain extent unavoidable, but will remain marginal side issues. So I don’t see it as a political event.
The people here in the Holy See tell me that everyone from the Synod member have a five minutes right to speak and he has to refer to a certain paragraph of the Instrumentum Laboris (1) in order to make his remarks. So a Synod member will speak freely but whether his remarks will be taken into account or not that’s another question.
However, a politicization might not be totally avoided if one only remembers that 90 % of dignitaries who are members of the synod are coming from Arab countries and that they are representing national churches. In addition, most of them are of Arab ethnicity. But I am confident that the persons in charge of the synod on behalf in the Holy See will have enough wisdom to control the events in a way which will not alienate its original purpose.
If you read the Instrumentum Laboris you will find paragraphs which are more political but if you count all paragraphs together they are few in numbers. Many paragraphs are dealing with essential topics affecting the faith as freedom of religion. There is one point that I follow with some concern, the inadequate use of the term Holy Land, especially in relation to events which take place today and not in the biblical times. Many Church dignitaries use the term Holy Land not only in its really theological-historical original sense but also to describe the so-called exodus of Christians from the Middle East due to social discrimination, persecutions and political conflicts. The term Holy Land lacks a modern definition in the political or geographical sense. It can be almost every country in the Middle East in which biblical events took place, but it can be only Jerusalem or Israel. The debate about the exodus of Christians from the Middle East should be conducted with a more precise language and with more fairness on behalf of Catholic dignitaries.
- Why ? What are the consequences ?
The undefined use of the term Holy Land is doing Israel and also Jordan injustice. Persecutions of Christians never happened in Israel. Neither is there any exodus of Christians. We have in fact a dramatic increase of Christians in Israel, including a growing numbers of Catholics. The increase is based on guest workers in Israel - many of them are Catholics (2) - and from the Russian immigration to Israel. But in the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem they keep on talking about exodus, without not taking into account the dramatic increase of Catholics in Israel in their public statements. By presenting the Latin Patriarchate outside the region as poor, weak and miserable one is not doing justice to the governmental efforts to improve the conditions of Christian presence in Israel. There are serious talks with the Israeli government on the financial agreement whose aim is to enable Christian communities to develop in Israel. And Catholic private educational institutions are supported by the state.
On the other hand, I took note positively the fact that Father David Neuhaus, as a vicar in charge of the Hebrew speaking Catholics, was accepted as a member to the Synod. I think it’s a good move in order to focus the attention on the diversities in Catholicism in Israel.
- You mention the negotiations between the Israeli Government and the Holy See. What are the obstacles which prevent to sign an agreement for more than 15 years ?
We made a lot of progress. The parties have proposed from the start that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. So even if we made progress we cannot reveal the substance of progress until the whole package is agreed. As the church concept of time is eternity, it requests are related to future legislation which any government may have difficulty to promise in advance. From the point of view of the Church I can understand it, it’s already 2000 years in the Holy Land and it would like to remain at least 2000 years more. But even this problem can be solved if one remembers how agreements with the Holy See are updated (3).
- There is another pending issue between Israel and the Vatican, the visas problem for the clergy. What’s going on this point ?
It has much improved recently. Two years ago, we had many complaints, today there are much less. But I will not say that everything is solved. In the cases of entry requests by clergy who carry citizenship of enemy countries, every request will be checked thoroughly by the proper authorities. They may not take any security risk even with clergy. The traumatic experience with Capucci (4) is still in memory.
- You mentioned the Instrumentum Laboris which is a basis for the Synod discussions. Did you find in this long text some points which surprise you in a positive or negative way ?
I think that the document itself is a very frank document. For instance in one paragraph there is a problem of how to quote the Old Testament in the liturgy – should it be fully quoted, only hinted or dismissed at all ? I was also surprised of some interesting remark about Zionism. The Instrumentum Laboris is practically asking the local governments not to drag the clergy into discussions about anti-Zionism which it is a political issue which is alien to the Church. Anti-Semitism is condemned clearly and even Anti-Judaism is banned "at least in theory" according to the Instrumentum (5). This is a very frank description of existing reality.
- Can you elaborate on that point. The text says precisely : “everywhere in the Church in the Middle East the religious sentiment in anti-Judaism has been overcome, at least in theory, by the pastoral guidelines of the Second Vatican Council.” How do you understand this sentence ?
I think this is a realistic assessment of the situation, a statement which is not trying to whitewash things. They say anti-Judaism has not completely vanished. It means in other words that Nostra Aetate is not really accepted in its depth by some dignitaries from the Middle East. It is known that there was substantial opposition among the Arab catholic dignitaries at that time and probably some of it didn’t vanish even today. You should not forget that they are not only Catholic, they are also representing National churches : Copt, Syrian, Ethiopian, Armenian. The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem is actually the only one which is defined as Latin and not according to ethnicity.
- And did you have negative surprises with the Instrumentum Laboris document ?
First of all the translation between the Italian and English which concerned the nature of what they call "Israeli occupation" was not in harmony. I thought that the English was the decisive text, but I was told that the Italian was. The phrasing was taking side to the Palestinians. I was not fond of it but we could survive it. After all, everyone who reads theLineamenta (6) and afterwards the Instrumentum Laboris is getting the impression that the language was much more softened. It’s after all not a document which is endorsed by the Zionist movement ! It is a document that will reflect after papal approval the teachings of the Church.
- The Israeli Palestinian conflict is always mentioned as the first or even the only one conflict in the Middle East in spite that the Instrumentum Laboris mentions the “political conflicts in the region”. What do you think about it ?
This is a deliberate interpretation of the media which I don’t share. Our region is a conflict ridden zone. As a Christian Arab church dignitary you don’t risk anything and certainly not your life in criticizing Israel at the expense of other conflicts. There are some conflicts that people are afraid to speak about. And singling out Israel negatively may cause in some Arab capitals standing ovations.
- Last question. How is to be ambassador to the Holy See for a Jew ?
It’s a very strange feeling. I am attending a lot of messes in order to fulfil my duty but I attend I do not participate. But it’s an exciting experience and especially for me who has been dealing with the Christian matters even before. So it’s for me a complementary experience in Rome as the other center of the world after being counsellor for Christian and Muslim communities of the mayor of Jerusalem.
(1) Instrumentum Laboris, a working document of 50 pages preparing the Synod, was published in June 2010 during the Pope’s visit in Cyprus.
(2) The Philippines workers are mainly Catholics.
(3) For instance the Concordat signed with Italy in 1929
(4) Hillarion Capucci was the melkite (greek catholic) bishop of the community of Jerusalem from 1965 to 1974. Enjoying the diplomatic status of the religious dignitaries, he was arrested by the Israeli security internal services while he transported arms aimed to the Palestinians in his car, a diplomatic vehicle. Condamned to 12 years in prison, deported in 1977, he was one of the passengers of the Marmara, the famous Turkish boat boarded by the Israeli navy on May 31, 2010, operation during nine turcs were killed.
(5) Paragraph 90 of Instrumentum Laboris.
(6) Lineamenta, documents written by the local Churches and base for the Instrumentum Laboris.