JTA / August 30, 2005
By Larry Luxner
MEXICO CITY With centuries of anti-Semitism weighing heavily on the Roman Catholic Church, Mexico City's 338-year-old Catedral Metropolitano an imposing symbol of Christianity whose vast interior is crammed with crucifixes and religious icons is the last place one might expect to find sympathy toward the Jewish people.
After all, less than a block away, street vendors eagerly hawk Spanish translations of "The International Jew," "Mein Kampf" and "Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
Yet Cardinal Norberto Rivera says those vendors are hopelessly out of touch with the Mexican mainstream, and that the vast majority of Mexico's 95 million or so Catholics have nothing against their 40,000 Jewish brethren.
"Disgracefully, we still have isolated expressions of anti-Semitism, but the influence of such books is not great, and the Mexican people don't accept this," he said. "We must promote a dialogue of tolerance, accept those who are different and fight all classes of discrimination."
As archbishop of Mexico City, Rivera is the most powerful Catholic in the world's second-most populous Catholic country after Brazil. The 63-year-old cardinal spoke to JTA one Sunday morning as he prepared his weekly sermon, which is attended by hundreds of devout Catholics gathered in the cathedral and is broadcast throughout Mexico to a weekly radio audience of several hundred thousand.
"The average Mexican knows little about the lives and thoughts of the Jewish community," said Rivera, a priest originally from the state of Durango who was named to his current post in 1998. "I think this is a community we must get to know better, because that would allow us to accept them and reject false stereotypes."
In late June, Rivera led seven other Spanish-speaking bishops on an 11-day trip to Poland and Israel. The visit was co-sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and the Mexican Jewish community, in an effort to educate the Catholic leadership about the Jewish people and particularly about the Holocaust.
The group spent four days in Poland, visiting the concentration camps of Auschwitz, Belzec and Majdanek, as well as an important Catholic shrine, the Basilica of Our Lady of Czestochowa. In Warsaw, they met Polish Foreign Minister Daniel Adam Rotfeld and Israel's ambassador to Poland, David Peleg.
During their week in Israel, the eight bishops toured key Jewish and Christian holy sites, dined with representatives of the Holy See, and spoke with a range of Israeli Arabs and Jews.
"Six years ago I went to Israel with the Jewish community of Mexico, but this trip was extraordinary," Rivera told JTA. "There was particularly a lot of interest in the Holocaust. Seeing the concentration camps gave me a much deeper impression than visiting Yad Vashem, because this was really an attack against human dignity that we must never allow to be repeated."
Renιe Dayan-Shabot is director of Tribuna Israelita, the political affairs agency of the Mexican Jewish community. She said the idea of inviting the bishops to Israel and Poland grew out of her organization's co-sponsorship of a highly successful 1999 visit of 16 Mexican academics to both countries.
"We want to transmit the idea that Jews and Catholics can live with each other, learning about their differences but respecting each other," said Dayan-Shabot. She noted that although Mexican synagogues have never been bombed or vandalized, "what we have are newspaper articles criticizing Israel, or talking badly about Jews. We know there's anti-Semitism. We don't fool ourselves into assuming everybody loves us."
In 1999, Tribuna Israelita published a book entitled "Texts for Judeo-Christian Dialogue." The book depicts Pope John Paul II praying at the Western Wall and explains the various Vatican edicts that urge greater understanding between Jews and Catholics.
Earlier this year, on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Tribuna Israelita published a second book with the help of Mexico's National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination. "Auschwitz: Reflections in the Mexican Press" consists of several dozen articles and illustrations on the subject by leading local journalists.
Even though most Mexican Catholics know little about the Holocaust, Jewish leaders like Dayan-Shabot hope the bishops who went on the trip will speak about their experiences with their congregations.
Indeed, says Rivera, like his late predecessor, the new pope [Benedict XVI] also was a witness to the persecution of the Jews during World War II and is very sensitive to their suffering. In addition to being a man with a deep knowledge of history, he will not only continue to follow in the path of John Paul II but will open new approaches to this dialogue [between Catholics and Jews]."
Joining Rivera on the spiritual journey to Israel and Poland were bishops from smaller Mexican cities such as Durango, Texcoco and Guadalajara, as well as three bishops from border communities in Texas.
"The purpose of the trip was to unite in a closer bond via our Judeo-Christian roots the Spanish-speaking Jewish communities of Mexico and the United States with the Catholic Spanish-speaking hierarchy in both countries," said Rev. James A. Tamayo, bishop of Laredo, Tex.
"Most of us had been to Israel before, but what was unique about this pilgrimmage was how the Jewish hosts who sponsored the trip helped us to see Israel and Poland through the eyes of the Jewish community. It allowed us to be more more aware of the tragedy of the Holocaust," added Tamayo, who's also chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Hispanic Affairs.
"There was great openness on everyone's part to share our stories of faith and history, the positive along with the painful. The bonding that took place between all of us, I think, is the foundation of what we hope will take place in our towns and communities."
Tamayo's diocese covers a largely impoverished 200-mile stretch of the Texas-Mexico border that's home to around 200,000 Catholics. Within the seven-county area are 54 priests serving 29 churches and 15 missions.
At the moment, the most pressing issue for Tamayo is the plight of Mexican immigrants in the United States. American Jews have traditionally been sympathetic to immigrants, and Hispanic leaders hope their Jewish colleagues in Washington will raise influential voices in protest over vigilante killings along the U.S.-Mexico border and inhumane treatment of illegal aliens.
"We get wonderful support from our local Jewish community," he told JTA. "When we had a Mass in honor of the Pope's passing, Congregation Agudas Achim donated the flowers for the altar and sent us a letter of condolence. I think there's an opportunity here for us as a new Catholic diocese to grow as an interfaith community."
Dina Siegel Vann, director of AJC's Latino and Latin American Institute, said the bishops' visit to Poland and Israel will undoubtedly "contribute to deepening their understanding of the two main pillars of the contemporary Jewish experience the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel."
She added that "we hope to expand this initiative to include Catholic leaders from across Latin America."