Italian bishops promote Catholic-Jewish dialogue as antisemitic speech increases

The Great Synagogue in Rome Italy Credit Stephen Rees via Flickr CC BY NC ND 20 filter added CNA 1 15 16 The Great Synagogue of Rome. | Stephen Rees via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) filter added.

The Catholic Church in Italy marked its 31st annual Day of Jewish-Christian Religious Dialogue with a discussion between Rome's chief rabbi and a Catholic priest who is a professor of the Old Testament.

Riccardo Di Segni and Fr. Luca Mazzinghi spoke on the Song of Songs from the Jewish and Christian perspectives Jan. 16 at the Pontifical Lateran University and organized by the Vicariate of Rome.

While the theme of the discussion is not strictly "Christian-Jewish dialogue," the event is an exercise in dialogue, which is important, Fr. Mazzinghi told CNA.

Fr. Mazzinghi, who teaches on the Old Testament at the Pontifical Gregorian University, has years of experience with inter-religious dialogue with Jews.

"As a Christian, I feel the need for dialogue with Judaism, because Judaism is a part, if I may say, of my DNA," he said.

"If you are a Christian, you should feel a closeness to Judaism, because it is your roots."

"The [Catholic] relationship with Judaism is not like the relationship with other religions, with Islam, for example, or Hinduism, Buddhism," he said. "It's a very particular relationship, because the God of the Bible is the same."

Antisemitic attacks and speech, especially online, are on the rise in Italy, where the Jewish community numbers 30,000.  

The Center of Contemporary Jewish Documents' Observatory on Anti-Jewish Prejudice, which is based in Milan, recorded 190 antisemitic acts between January and September 2019, up from 2018 and 2017.

The group defines antisemitic episodes as intentional acts of violence or physical attack, threats, discrimination, insults, writings, or graffiti directed against Jewish persons, organizations, or properties, and in which there is evidence of antisemitic motivation or content.

In Italy, the number of violent antisemitic attacks are lower than in other parts of Europe, but prejudice and the number of verbal attacks against Jewish people, mostly online, are rising, the Observatory found.

An example is the 2018 theft in Rome of twenty bronze-capped cobblestones, commemorating members of two Italian Jewish families who were deported during the Holocaust.

"We should be very careful about antisemitism, because it is a very real danger, it's a reality," Fr. Mazzinghi said.

"On this I need to be very clear: A Christian cannot be an antisemite in any way."

"Pope Francis has also repeated this many times: If you are an antisemite you cannot be a Christian. For me, this is clear. In any case, antisemitic acts put me outside the Christian faith."

In May 2019, Pope Francis told an international group dedicated to Jewish-Catholic dialogue "to work together in building a climate not only of tolerance but also of respect between religions."

"We share a rich spiritual patrimony that can and must be ever more esteemed and appreciated as we grow in mutual understanding, fraternity and shared commitment on behalf of others," he said.

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Fr. Mazzinghi explained that "in the past, Christians, not only in the Catholic Church, but Christians in general, have often behaved as antisemites."

St. John Paul II called the Jewish people the "elder brothers" of Catholics, Fr. Mazzinghi said, noting that "if Jews are my brothers, I cannot be against Jews in any way."

"Dialogue, I believe, helps both to understand that the other is not an enemy."

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