(Washington, D.C., May 31, 2022)–A B’nai B’rith International leadership delegation has met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Led by B’nai B’rith President Seth J. Riklin and CEO Daniel S. Mariaschin, the multinational delegation—one of the first of its kind since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—sought to build upon strides in Catholic-Jewish relations and further advance peace and partnership in the Middle East.
The delegation also met with Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, with other officials and diplomats, and with the leadership of the Italian Jewish community.
In remarks to B’nai B’rith, which he said has been “tirelessly committed to humanitarian causes,” Pope Francis urged “remembrance of the Shoah,” adding: “Even before I became Pope, the promotion and deepening of Jewish-Catholic dialogue was something close to my heart.”
In formal remarks, B’nai B’rith urged active support for the expansion of the Abraham Accords, which has widened the circle of peace between Israel and Arab countries; called out Iran for threatening the very annihilation of the Jewish state; and positively cited governments’ adoption of an International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance working definition of anti-Semitism that includes prevalent contemporary forms of the scourge.
Israel’s protection of minorities’ religious liberty in Jerusalem was also noted. The day prior, on Jerusalem Day—the 55th anniversary of the reunification of the eternal capital city of the Jewish people—B’nai B’rith delegates visited the Arch of Titus, which depicts the ancient Romans’ despoiling of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The delegation visit was coordinated by B’nai B’rith’s Office of Intercommunal Affairs. Excerpts of Riklin’s remarks to the pontiff follow.
“As President of B’nai B’rith International—the oldest Jewish communal organization, founded in 1843 in New York, an organization that is profoundly committed to interreligious dialogue and partnership—it is my great honor, on behalf of our brothers and sisters across six continents, to give you our heartfelt thanks for receiving us today…
Our world is one of seemingly endless and distressing challenges: Brutal, senseless conflict, including the nearby war in Ukraine; the scourge of hunger that the war has exacerbated; and political extremism and polarization around the world—to name just a few acute problems facing the human family. In my own state of Texas, we are deeply grieving because of the senseless tragedy in Uvalde resulting from the failure to provide access to mental health care and the proliferation of guns of war in the hands of ordinary citizens. All of God’s children have suffered two years of a frightening pandemic that has taken millions of lives—and left countless survivors behind to mourn. It is easy to feel a sense of despair.
But this time that we share today can be a much-needed source of real hope, even inspiration, to people of faith around the world. As during previous audiences that we have been fortunate to have with you and your predecessors, we cannot but marvel at the blessed and bold transformation in Catholic-Jewish relations that has occurred in a short period of time. To the brave heroes who are responsible for this historic transformation, we can only offer our enduring gratitude. From clergy to laypeople to seminarians, the work of strengthening our sacred friendship continues—founded upon the indelible bonds of our two religions.
Outside of Christian-Jewish relations as well, today we can find growing cause for optimism. B’nai B’rith leaders have recently returned from missions to important Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in support of the fittingly named Abraham Accords. The signatories to those Accords have made the principled choice of peace and mutual acceptance with Israel, resulting in wide-ranging cooperation and engagement between their peoples. There has been a growing realization that the political strategies of the past have failed to solve the problems facing the Middle East. Through this realization, the people of these countries, Muslims and Jews together, have found the core values that they share, that they are indeed ‘cousins,’ and, as a result, we are now beginning to see how much our familial faiths can achieve together.
All of us should support this reconciliation and encourage its expansion—for the sake of all people!
Sadly, it cannot be denied that some malevolent forces are determined to create and widen divisions amongst peoples through all forms of bigotry and hate, using incitement to cause violence and conflict. Despite the very small size of the Jewish people, anti-Semitism remains one of the most virulent hatreds, online and in real life. Despite the very small size of Israel, the citizens of the Middle East’s only pluralistic democracy continue to be demonized, delegitimized and subjected to violent terror attacks.
Today, Iran’s government continues to openly pledge the very annihilation of Israel and to fund proxies’ continued threats to and attacks upon Israel. Despite this effort, Israel continues to undertake great sacrifices and risks for peace, and even maintains Muslim administration of Judaism’s single holiest place in Jerusalem.
Yet at the United Nations, Israel has been condemned more than all other countries combined, a means to distract from other countries’ human rights violations. Yet, there has been progress. Thankfully, a long list of countries have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, or IHRA, working definition of anti-Semitism. The definition critically identifies prejudice against Jews both as a faith group and as an ancient but living people.
Your Holiness, we hope that all people will stand together against anti-Semitism, against anti-Christian discrimination and against intolerance directed at Muslims. In recognition of our common home and common destiny, let us protect the environment, care for the most vulnerable and promote mutual understanding rather than mutual recrimination.”