In wake of Assads remarks, Jews blast popes silence

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NEW YORK — When the Western-educated Bashar Assad succeeded his father, Hafez Assad, as president of Syria last summer, Israeli officials hoped the changing of the guard from the Lion of Damascus to the Optometrist of Damascus would usher in a gentler approach toward Israel.

Young Assad has lost no time in establishing animosity toward Israel, however, greeting Pope John Paul II to Syria this week by resuscitating one of the great anti-Jewish canards: the accusation that Jews killed Jesus.

Even more galling to many Jewish leaders, however, was the pope's silence in the face of the Christ-killer charge, as well as Assad's call for Christians and Muslims to unite against Jews and an apparently novel claim that Jews even tried to kill the prophet Mohammed.

The following day, Assad's minister for religious affairs weighed in by warning the pope: "We must be fully aware of what the enemies of God and malicious Zionism conspire to commit against Christianity and Islam."

As is his policy, the pope stuck to his script and did not attempt to counter his hosts' harangues.

To some Jewish leaders, the pope's silence raises the question of whether a man often hailed for his moves toward Jewish-Christian reconciliation really is committed to stamping out the insidious anti-Semitism that the Roman Catholic Church helped propagate through the ages.

And now the pope — whose reign has seen international criticism of the Vatican's silence in the face of Nazi atrocities — also held his tongue while Assad picked up a theme that the Catholic Church itself finally repudiated in 1965.

"If there's one thing we've learned from the 1930s, it's that words — especially the words of leaders — have consequences," said Rabbi A. James Rudin, the senior interreligious adviser to the American Jewish Committee. "And these words should not go unchecked or uncriticized."

A spokesman for American Catholics responded that it's not necessary for the pope to criticize Assad's comments.

"The Catholic Church has stated that it is inappropriate and wrong to say directly or indirectly that the Jews are to blame for the death of Jesus," said Eugene Fisher, who directs Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Nothing Mr. Assad says will change the mind of the pope or of 1 billion Catholics."

Fisher's words do not mollify Jewish critics, however. Several are writing letters to the pope or issuing press releases.

After all, they note, it was the pope's high-profile visit, covered at length by the world media, that provided Assad with a rare international platform for his statements.

"It's one thing for the Vatican to repair relations with the Muslim world, as long as it's not done at the expense of the Jewish people," said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

"It's nonsense for the Vatican to say we had nothing to do with this, because they provided a megaphone for this bigotry," Foxman continued.

While the Vatican remains mum, Washington has denounced Assad and his colleagues.

"These comments are as regrettable as they are unacceptable," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Monday.

"There's no place from anyone or from any side for statements that inflame religious passions and hatred," he said. "We hold with the pope's call for reconciliation. That is really the only way forward, especially in these difficult times, and the only way to achieve the peace that all parties profess to want."

Still, a papal clarification would help reassure Jews that this does not mark a shift in Catholic-Jewish relations, according to Mark Weitzman, who directs the Simon Wiesenthal Center's task force against hate.

"This flies in the face of all their condemnations of anti-Semitism," Weitzman said. "Is this going to be a case of Vatican policy — to the West — of repudiation of anti-Semitism, and to the Mideast, silence in the face of it? A lesson they say they've learned is that the crime of indifference is one of the greatest sins."

Fisher, however, said it is customary for the pope to devise a blueprint of what he will do and say during an upcoming trip, and then not deviate from the script.

This strategy allows the pope "to have control of what he says" and avoid getting embroiled in a tit-for-tat with his often roguish hosts.

"I can understand the pope's practices," said Seymour Reich, the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, an umbrella group of Jewish organizations. "But I am a little disappointed that there wasn't some sort of diplomatic way for the pope to indicate his annoyance and irritation — which he must have felt at Assad for taking advantage of his pilgrimage."