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A senior B’nai B’rith International leadership delegation met privately with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on May 12.  The papal audience is the latest encounter between B’nai B’rith and successive leaders of the Roman Catholic Church, intended to advance positive Catholic-Jewish relations.

While in Rome, the B’nai B’rith delegation met with Gianfranco Fini, president of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and plans to meet with Ambassador Stefano Stefanini, diplomatic advisor to President Napolitano. The group met with Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and will meet with other prominent Vatican officials, among them the Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone; Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and its Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews; and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The B’nai B’rith delegates attended an Israeli Independence Day reception hosted by Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See Mordechay Lewy in the Jewish Museum adjacent to the Great Synagogue, and met with leaders of the Italian Jewish community and B’nai B’rith in Rome.

The B’nai B’rith delegation—led by B’nai B’rith International Interim President Allan J. Jacobs and Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin—raised concerns over unprecedented upheaval in the Middle East and ongoing challenges there to Jews and Christians, including the continuing cruel captivity of 24-year-old Gilad Shalit. Underscoring Iran’s illicit nuclear program and support of terrorism, B’nai B’rith leaders pointed to the role of religious and political extremism in preventing regional peace.

In his remarks to Pope Benedict, Jacobs thanked the pontiff for his important past statements on Israel’s legitimacy and right to self-defense. Jacobs also asked the pope to make clear that the acute scrutiny of Israel at last year’s Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops did not reflect the church’s approach to the Jewish state and that the church will powerfully encourage only fairness and care in addressing the region’s complexities, while opposing narratives and measures that single out Israel or Israelis for targeting.

Jacobs noted especially the pontiff’s affirmation of Israel’s “legitimate need for security and self-defense,” and statement that the Holy See joins in “giving thanks to the Lord that the aspirations of the Jewish people for a home in the land of their fathers have been fulfilled.”

In discussions with church officials, the B’nai B’rith delegation noted a number of points of contention in Catholic-Jewish engagement, such as the Good Friday prayer “for the conversion of the Jews” in the Latin-language Tridentine Mass, and the still-unopened Vatican archives from the Holocaust period. The delegation also praised positive steps by the church, such as the pope’s recent reaffirmation of Vatican repudiation of the centuries-old anti-Jewish “deicide” charge, and noted the beatification this month of Pope John Paul II, who prioritized friendship with Jews.

“It’s a great honor to engage directly, and substantively, with Pope Benedict XVI,” Mariaschin said. “Discussing points of agreement, as well as issues of concern, affords a vital opportunity for understanding between two faith communities of unique importance to each other.”

At the conclusion of their audience, the B’nai B’rith delegation presented Pope Benedict with a dove-and-olive branch memento symbolizing peace—crafted by Haitian women from communities devastated by the massive earthquake of January 2010. The gift was created through an income-generating project to help Haitian women support their families, established by Israeli non-profit partners including IsraAID, a humanitarian relief coalition of which B’nai B’rith is a key member. The project, operated by the Israel non-governmental organization “Tevel b’Tzedek” is named “Dam Dam” (women) and employs 90 women in three rural villages who are making paper mache crafts under the direction of an Israeli artist utilizing recycled and reclaimed materials.

In addition to Jacobs and his wife Jodie, and Mariaschin, the delegation members included: Dr. Yves Kamami, B’nai B’rith International senior vice president (Paris, France); Ambassador Joseph and Joyce Harari, chairman of the B’nai B’rith International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy (CHRPP) (Panama City, Panama); Ralph Hofmann, president of  B’nai B’rith Europe (Frankfurt, Germany); Paolo Foa, member of the B’nai B’rith International Executive Committee (Milan, Italy); Sandro di Castro, president of the B’nai B’rith Rome Lodge (Rome, Italy); and Claudia Bagnarelli, president of the B’nai B’rith Milan Lodge (Milan, Italy). Also present were Alan Barry, CHRPP board member (Commerce Township, Mich.); Dr. Steven Horowitz, CHRPP board member (Chicago); Michael Nachman, CHRPP board member (Washington, D.C., and New York); Rene Braginsky (Zurich, Switzerland); Gary Cohen (Kinnelon, N.J.); Alan and Susan Fuerstman (Laguna Beach, Calif.); Daniel Citone, vice president of the B’nai B’rith Rome Lodge (Rome, Italy); and David J. Michaels, B’nai B’rith International director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs (New York).