Czech Jews and Catholics seeking reconciliation

PRAGUE — A famous windswept landmark in the Czech capital has provided the backdrop for a symbolic gesture of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews.

"A little part of history was made," said the president of the North American Board of Rabbis, Marc Schneier, as he reflected on the recent ceremony on Prague's Charles Bridge attended by 40 rabbis and a contingent of leading Czech Christians.

In what representatives of both faiths described as a historic occasion, a set of plaques explaining a controversial 300-year-old Hebrew inscription mounted on a statue of Jesus on the cross was officially unveiled at the bridge service.

The inscription,"Holy, Holy, Holy Is the Lord of Hosts" — a traditional Jewish prayer taken from the Book of Isaiah — was placed there by Prague city authorities in 1696 to humiliate Jews for an alleged blasphemy against the cross committed by a Prague Jew.

Some Prague tour guides and books suggest that it was placed there to mock a Jewish politician named Elias Backoffen, who refused to bow to the cross. Others say Backoffen had spit at the cross, cursing Christianity. Still others claim that it was placed there to ridicule local Jews who had refused to remove their yarmulkes in the presence of the cross.

The inscription has for many years confused — and in many cases, offended — Jewish tourists.

Attempts by local Jewish groups to have the inscription removed, or at least explained, fell on deaf ears until a delegation from the board of rabbis intervened last year, lobbying Prague Mayor Jan Kasl for the circumstances of the wording to be explained.

"This statue will now become a monument to the horrors of anti-Semitism," Schneier said.

The new plaques state in English, Czech and Hebrew that the Hebrew inscription was added to the statue "as the result of improper court proceedings against Elias Backoffen."

It also points out that the addition "was intended to humiliate the Jewish community."

The Rev. Tomas Halik, a Prague priest and keen supporter of interfaith relations, said he was pleased to see the plaques in place.

"I support anything which brings together people of different cultures and religions," he said.

Also present was John Shattuck, U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, who described the ceremony as "an important moment in the life and culture" of the European nation.

"Today demonstrates a sensitivity and tolerance across religions," he added.

Shattuck read a statement from Czech-born Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"The plaque, and the fact that you have gathered together on this historic bridge, symbolize the growing bonds between the Jewish and Christian communities in Prague and throughout the Czech Republic and beyond," her statement read.

For Schneier, the event was history in the making.

"We are living in historic, if not revolutionary times, in terms of Jewish-Catholic relations," he said.