Lebanese-born Melkite Archbishop Cyrille Salim Bustros garnered worldwide attention at the end of the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East in the Vatican when he assailed the belief held by many Jews (and Christians) that God’s promise of the land to the Jewish people is irrevocable.
According to CNN reported Bustros asserted on Oct. 25 that “We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people.” He also stated “This promise was nullified by Christ,” and that “There is no longer a chosen people — all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”
These comments set off a row between Israel and the Vatican but will have little impact on the opinion of lay Catholics in the U.S., most of whom have never heard of the Archbishop or of the community of Greek Melkites that he leads. Still, with his statement, the Archbishop achieved a brief moment of notoriety that will fade long before the damage he has caused.
Archbishop Bustros’s post-synod comments harkened back to an era prior to the Second Vatican Council when the Roman Catholic Church embraced a naked supersessionism that contradicts the spirit, if not the letter of Nostra Aetate, a declaration issued by the Second Vatican Council that called for a change in the Church’s theological mindset toward the Jewish people. (The Vatican’s affirmation of Nostra Aetate was, by the way, opposed by many Arab Christians living in the Middle East for fear that it would underscore the legitimacy of a Jewish state.)
This raises another issue: For all the outrage that the Archbishop Bustros’ comments sparked, the “Message” issued by the synod itself is also problematic. Like many other Christian statements regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, the “Message” issued by the synod subjects Israel and Jews to harsh scrutiny while treating Israel’s adversaries and Muslim leaders with kid gloves.
For example, it admonishes the Jews that
Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable. On the contrary, recourse to religion must leave every person to see the face of God in others and to treat them according to their God-given prerogatives and God’s commandments, namely according to God’s bountiful goodness, mercy, justice and love for us.
Compare this passage of the document – which obliquely accuses Israel of using the bible to justify the mistreatment of Palestinians – with the message it offers to Muslims:
Since the appearance of Islam in the seventh century and to the present, we have lived together and we have collaborated in the creation of our common civilisation. As in the past and still existent today, some imbalances are present in our relations. Through dialogue we must avoid all imbalances and misunderstandings.
If there is an “imbalance,” anywhere, it is in this document itself. The statement obliquely condemns Jews for using scripture for nefarious purposes but offers not one word of condemnation for the use of the Koran to mistreat religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East, which according to the testimony offered by the Bishops themselves, is clearly a problem.
For example, Monsignor Raboula Antoine Beylouni, Titular Archbishop of Mardin of the Syrians, Curia Bishop of Antioch of the Syrians (Lebanon) made a statement during the Synod about the obstacles to religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East, which he says is oftentimes “difficult and ineffective.” The difficulties are not limited to discussions of dogma, the Monsignor said. For “even the subjects of a practical and social order are difficult to discuss when the Koran or the Sunna discusses them.” He continued:
Here are some difficulties which we have faced:
– The Koran inculcates in the Muslim pride in being the only true and complete religion, taught by the greatest prophet, because he was the last one. The Muslim is part of the privileged nation, and speaks the language of God, the language of Paradise, the Arabic language. This is why, he comes to dialogue with a sense of superiority, and with the certitude of being victorious.
The Koran, supposedly written by God Himself, from beginning to end, gives the same value to all that is written: dogma that supercedes all law or practice.
In the Koran, men and women are not equal, not even in marriage itself where the man takes several wives and can divorce at his pleasure; nor in the heritage where man takes double; nor in the testifying before judges where the voice of one man is equal to the voice of two women, etc…The Koran allows the Muslim to hide the truth from the Christian, and to speak and act contrary to how he thinks and believes.
In the Koran, there are contradictory verses which annul others, which gives the Muslim the possibility of using one or the other to his advantage, and therefore he can tell the Christian that he is humble and pious and believes in God, just as he can treat him as impious, apostate and idolatrous.The Koran gives the Muslim the right to judge Christians and to kill them for the Jihad (the holy war). It commands the imposition of religion through force, with the sword. The history of invasions bears witness to this. This is why the Muslims do not recognize religious freedom, for themselves or for others. And it isn’t surprising to see all the Arab countries and Muslims refusing the whole of the “Human Rights” institute d by the United Nations.
While Islam has many different interpretations and no central arbiter of doctrine, such as the pope, he said, most Muslims are taught to interpret the Quran literally. Following its precepts, they divide the world into Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb – the land of Islam and the land of war, the land conquered by Muslims and the land yet to be conquered by Muslims.Like Christians, Muslims are obligated to “convert nonbelievers.” Unlike Christianity, however, “the doctrines of Islam dictate war against unbelievers.” Jihad, or holy war, is justified as self-defense whenever Islam is threatened – whether by a conquering power or an offensive cartoon.Most Muslims do not take those interpretations of Islamic teaching as far as Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, Archbishop Bustros said. But “the concept of nonviolence is absent from Muslim doctrine and practice,” he added.Although Islam calls itself a religion of peace, the peace it preaches is the literal interpretation of Islam, which means “surrender to the will of God.”“The peace in Islam is based on the surrender of all people to Islam and to God’s power based on Islamic law,” Archbishop Bustros said. “They have to defend this peace of God even by force.”
Again, these are serious problems, and there was not one word of criticism leveled at Muslim leaders in the document. Why the silence?
Two State Solution, but …
It is important to note that the official document issued by the synod calls for a two state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, as does a statement issued by the Archbishop himself on Oct. 23 in which he states that “Palestinians and Israelis each have the right to have and to live in a sovereign State with secure borders.”
Accompanying the Archbishop’s affirmation, however, is the following assessment of Israeli political life:
Israelis cannot betray either their faith or their nationalism. According to the Bible, the State of Israel – the national territory of the Kingdom of Israel – is the whole of Palestine. From the perspective of faith Palestine is the Promised Land of the chosen people and the national Homeland of the nationalist dream of Judaism.Hence we can understand that any Prime Minister, Member of Parliament or other Israeli leader who proposes a solution that fails to take into account those two requirements – of faith and nationalism – would be seen as a traitor to his faith and nation.The decision to decree that Israel is a Jewish country originates in this duality that underlies the State of Israel, a duality that, obligatorily, leads into an impasse every attempt at negotiations even if they are not still-born. Anyway, as at Masada, this is Jewish suicide.
Here, the Archbishop espouses a narrative in which he portrays Israel as unable to achieve peace with the Palestinians because of its Jewish identity.
Specter of Supersessionism
The problem with the Archbishop’s post-synodical comments – official or not – is that by raising the specter of Catholic supersessionism, he gives Israel’s adversaries in the Middle East good reason to think that in some quarters of Christianity at least, Jews are still regarded as an apostate fallen race who are not entitled to a sovereign state of their own.
Yes, on one hand, the Synod and the Archbishop himself spoke in political and worldly terms about the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state. But on a theological level, the Archbishop has introduced doubt about the Church’s attitude toward the Jewish people and their state. To be sure, the Archbishop does not speak for the entire church and his statement seems to contradict Pope Benedict’s statement (issued prior to his Papacy) that God’s covenant with the Jews “has never been revoked.”
The Vatican’s response to the Archbishop’s statement will provide an important clue as to what type of leadership it will provide to its members outside of Europe and the United States where the Church’s membership is growing rapidly.
This is an important issue. Christians outside the U.S. and Europe do not feel responsible for the Holocaust. Catholics in the Third World are also much less concerned about Christian-Jewish dialogue than their co-religionists in the West for one simple reason – they have little contact with Jews. Consequently, indifference and in some instances, outright contempt for Jews and Israel oftentimes manifests itself in organizations whose constituencies are located in the Third World.
To be sure, Catholic leaders, have in the main, spoken in much more responsible terms than the World Council of Churches headquartered in Switzerland and mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. Despite the Archbishop’s outburst, the Vatican has stated that anti-Zionism sometimes serves as a “screen” for anti-Semitism.”
Regardless of how the Roman Catholic Church’s hierarchy responds to the controversy surrounding Archbishop Bustros’ remarks, his statement should not come as a surprise. Arab Christians, including Melkite leaders, have been known to assail Israel.
For exam ple, a few months ago, another Melkite Archbishop – Hilarion Capucci – was a passenger onboard the Mavi Marmara, the vessel that attempted to run Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Most people would think it’s pretty irresponsible for a man of the cloth to rub shoulders with members of the IHH, a terrorist organization headquartered in Turkey that has ties to Hamas, but not with Capucci’s supporters who started a now-deleted Facebook page in his honor and posted comments about how proud they were of what he did.
As outrageous as this support is, Capucci enjoyed similar support when he was convicted of running guns into the West Bank for the PLO even though some of the weapons he smuggled into the West Bank were used to kill an Israeli taxi driver in Jerusalem.