At a recent Saint Joseph's University event -- one which was supposed to examine Israel's 60th anniversary from the perspective of Catholic-Jewish relations -- the two participants actually spent a good part of the time discussing Islam, especially the struggle in the Muslim world between religious moderates and those extremists now calling for a jihad against the West.
The Jewish voice at the program, Rabbi Eugene Korn -- who directs the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn. -- argued that the paramount question facing the Middle East is whether or not the majority of Muslims will be able to adapt to non-Muslims living in the region as equals.
Korn, who previously directed interreligious affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, said that such a development would obviously be important for Jews and the State of Israel, but also for Christians of all denominations, who in recent years have faced increased persecution in places like Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
He cited the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, where, in the past 15 years, the Christian population has dropped from 80 percent of the total population to less than 20 percent, all due, he claimed, to hostility directed toward Christians.
"I would argue that the more Israel is accepted in the Middle East, the more the issue of equality and dignity of non-Muslims will be accepted," said Korn, author of the recently published The Jewish Connection to Israel, the Promised Land: A Brief Introduction for Christians.
The program's other speaker, Eugene J. Fisher -- who for many years was considered the Vatican's point-person on Catholic-Jewish relations within the United States -- retired last year, after serving for 30 years as associate director emeritus of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He said that, while for centuries the Catholic Church steadfastly held to the notion that it was the one true faith and all others were inferior, such thinking began to change largely as the result of the experience of American Catholics with pluralism and diversity. These Catholics, he said, in turn, influenced and helped liberalize the Vatican.
Fisher expressed hope that American Muslims would ultimately have the same kind of impact on the practice and thought of Islam throughout the world, especially in the Mideast.
Roughly 100 people attended the program, according to Father Donald Clifford, director of the Jewish-Catholic Institute of Saint Joseph's University, which hosted the event.
"For me -- for many in my Catholic community -- this is a truly joyful affair," said Fisher, referring to Israel's 60th anniversary.
Of course, for most of Israel's existence, no formal ties existed between the Jewish state and the Holy See. The Vatican did not recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations until 1994.
Oslo Changed Things
Fisher noted that the 1993 Oslo accords proved to be the catalyst for the Vatican. He said that once the Palestinians recognized Israel -- which Pope John Paul II then visited in 2000 -- there remained no obstacles to the Catholic Church doing so.
During the question-and-answer session, Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, asked why the Catholic Church -- which initiated a rapprochement with Judaism in the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council -- maintains a much more positive view of the Jewish state than several mainline Protestant churches.
For example, next month the United Methodist Church is expected to consider divestment measures against businesses that deal with Israel when its policy-making body meets in Texas.