E. Europe Reforms Spark Religious Dialogue
UNDER the Communist regime that took power in Eastern Europe after World War II, the Jewish communities that survived the Nazi Holocaust were much more concerned with surviving than with carrying out a dialogue with Christians. Not only that: Under the new atheist governments, Christians also came under persecution to varying degrees. And in some countries anti-Semitism was used as excuse for brutal purges.
Today, all religions are benefiting from the democratic changes sweeping the region.
``There was not just a change for the Jews, but for all believers,'' says Desider Galsky, president of the 2,500 or so member Jewish community in the Czech Republic.
``For 40 years, Jews and Christians were on the same ship, had the same problems. The authorities decided who could be priests, rabbis, chairmen of the board. Now the control of the authorities is finished. We have excellent relations with officials - the deputy prime minister dealing with religious affairs even speaks Hebrew!'' he says.
While new freedoms have unfettered religious practice, they have also taken the lid off old prejudices. There has been an upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents in several countries. This has raised concern among Jewish as well as Christian leaders and prompted new initiatives aimed at Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Such dialogue really got off the ground only 25 years ago, with the Second Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate. This Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions removed the charge of ``Christ-killer'' from Jews.
Jewish-Christian dialogue, in many parts of the world, is a fairly recent development in a relationship marked by prejudice, expulsions, and bloody persecution.
``Even with all the problems, there have been more positive Catholic-Jewish encounters in the past 25 years than in all the past 1900 years,'' said Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee. ``It's one of the success stories of the 20th century.''
American Jewish Committee leaders, in a private audience with Pope John Paul II last month to mark the 25th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, called on the pope to use his personal influence to help defeat anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.
Other initiatives toward greater dialogue include fact-finding missions by Jewish groups to East European countries, international exchange programs, mixed Catholic-Jewish dialogue commissions, seminars, friendship societies between local people and Jews and, as diplomatic contacts with Israel are being reestablished, between East Europeans and Israel.
``I've personally taken part for years in meetings of the International Council for Christians and Jews,'' said Desider Galsky. ``This year, for the first time, they will hold their annual conference in Prague, at the end of August. The main question this year will be the influence of democracy and freedom in East-Central European countries on religious life, both for Jews and Christians.''
Mr. Galsky said there had been no indication of anti-Semitism in the Czech republic, although some incidents had been reported from strongly Roman Catholic Slovakia.
The most worrisome anti-Semitic incidents (outside the Soviet Union) have occurred on Poland, where only about 8,000 Jews now live compared to 3.5 million before the war. Said Polish Jewish activist Stanislaw Krajewski, ``There is simply more freedom in Poland, and freedom means freedom for anti-Semitism as well.''
Much of the tension centered around the crisis over a Carmelite convent established at the edge of the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Many Jews were outraged that Polish episcopal authorities apparently ignored an agreement by international Catholic and Jewish leaders that would have moved the convent from the camp by February 1988.
Tension was exacerbated last summer by scuffles between militant Jews and local people at the convent, and by remarks by Polish primate Cardinal Jozef Glemp which had an anti-Semitic slant.
The crisis finally was - for the moment - resolved, and ground was broken for a new convent and ecumenical center site in March.
Bishop Henryk Muszynski, chairman of the Polish episcopal commission for dialogue with Jews, told a group of American rabbis visiting Poland in February that in the wake of the almost total destruction of Jewish life in Poland in the Holocaust, dialogue - and overcoming misunderstandings - could be hard.
``We have had 45 years of history without contact with Jews.... Dialogue is very difficult. We have to explain everything from the very beginning,'' he says.