The World Council of Churches (WCC) and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) met formally on 25-27 June in Paris. This meeting was held under the theme “The normalization of hatred: challenges for Jews and Christians today.” Below, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit reflects on how restored relations between the two groups transpired.
Q: What inspired the renewal of dialogue between the WCC and the IJCIC?
Tveit: A meeting in 2011 between the IJCIC president and the WCC general secretary helped to re-establish a formal dialogue relationship. This gathered steam later in 2011 when representatives of WCC and IJCIC happened to meet in Rome for the ‘Assisi event’ organised by Pope Benedict.
Q: What did the WCC and IJCIC discuss in Paris?
Tveit: We gathered under the theme “The normalization of hatred: challenges for Jews and Christians today.” We acknowledged our places in the world at a time of challenges to both religious life in general and to each of our communities in their various contexts, as well as to our own communities and persons that experience normalization of hatred in physical and verbal forms. It is our common duty to see how all religious leaders and groups can counteract that, and as Christians and Jews we should show our shared values in addressing this together. I affirmed that the WCC and member churches condemn attacks on Jews and their properties, and at the meeting we were informed about the situation in France.
Q: How was the delegation formed?
Tveit: First, let me explain what exactly IJCIC is. After the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church needed to find a representative Jewish dialogue partner. There were international bodies such as the World Jewish Congress, but WJC is a secular organisation, and the Vatican wanted the dialogue to have a religious element. The Synagogue Council of America stepped in, meeting in 1970 and drafting a Memorandum of Understanding which led to the creation of IJCIC. The body deliberately has the word ‘Consultations’ rather than ‘Dialogue’ in its title, because of the reservations of some Orthodox Jews about whether Jews can or should engage in interreligious dialogue with Christians. ICJIC has three officers – president, vice-president and treasurer – who plan the meetings with WCC, along with other members of the 11 organizations in the IJCIC.
This background explains why members of the IJCIC delegation have been predominantly from the USA but also with representatives from Europe. They do, however, represent a wide spectrum of religious Jewish opinion, including Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
In drawing together the WCC delegation I tried to ensure its diversity, in both Christian tradition and geographical origin, in order to reflect the nature of WCC. It was important that the WCC delegation should always include a Palestinian Christian. In Paris, the WCC delegation included church leaders from the US, Middle East and France with H.E. Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate; Rev. Francois Clavairoly, president of the Federation of Protestant Churches; and Rev. Christian Krieger, president of the Conference of European Churches, as well as experts and resource persons from the staff. The meeting was convened by Rabbi Daniel Polish, chair of IJCIC, and myself; it was jointly chaired by Rabbi Noam Marans, vice chair of IJCIC, and H.E. Archbishop Dr Vicken Aykazian, WCC Executive Committee member and a legate of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Q: What is the most important outcome from the meeting in Paris?
Tveit: This historic meeting concluded with a shared commitment and a communique pledging to continue to communicate regularly, to facilitate the joint efforts to affect change identified by the meeting, “and to reconvene at regular intervals so that we can advance our respective and mutual responsibilities to our own communities and the world at large.”
“Among the issues that informed this gathering were: the rise of xenophobic nationalist movements in much of the world; suspicion of the agendas of religious communities and institutions, especially in Europe; the resurgence of overt antisemitism; the prevalence of Islamophobia; newly emerging anti-Christian attitudes; the continuing non-resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; worldwide hostility to vulnerable minorities; and the shocking erosion of civil society in many places and ways,” reads the communique. “We are particularly horrified by the recent increase in murderous attacks on places of worship in different parts of the world.”
In discussions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was recognized that there have sometimes been very real tensions between the positions of the WCC and IJCIC. “This meeting took place with acknowledgment of the development in both more constructive communications and the way that differences are conveyed publicly,” the communique reads.
Q: What is the WCC’s policy on antisemitism?
Tveit: In August 1948, just a few months after the State of Israel declared its independence, a fairly substantial report entitled “The Christian Approach to the Jews” was “received by the Assembly and commended to the churches for their serious consideration and appropriate action.” That report contains the famous and oft-quoted declaration which has had considerable influence in the WCC constituency and in the wider Christian world:
“We call upon all the churches we represent to denounce antisemitism, no matter what its origin, as absolutely irreconcilable with the profession and practice of the Christian faith. Antisemitism is sin against and man.”
When some call is relevant critique of the State of Israel and the work we do to promote human rights of Palestinians, we might find this to be an illegitimate use of this term “antisemitism”. This was also discussed thoroughly in the Paris meeting.
Tveit concluded to say that the staff will meet in September to follow up on joint plans.