Reporting in Rome on it for a week, and having read almost every word to have come out of it in the course of its 14 days, I simply cannot recognize the description of the Mid-East Synod ending last weekend which was made on Sunday by the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister.
Danny Ayalon complained that the historic gathering of the region's Catholic bishops had turned into “a forum for political attacks on Israel, in the best history of Arab propaganda". The reason for his fury? A comment made at the synod’s closing press conference on Saturday by a Greek Melkite archbishop, Cyrille Salim Bustros, who is based in Newton, Mass.
Archbishop Butros said: "We Christians cannot speak of the ‘promised land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people,” adding: "This promise was nullified by Christ. There is no longer a chosen people – all men and women of all countries have become the chosen people.”
No doubt the toes of the folks at the Vatican's Council for relations with Christians and Jews curled a little when they heard that, because it has echoes of the old Catholic doctrine - -repudiated by the Second Vatican Council -- of "supersecessionism", which holds that the covenant God made with the Jews has been "superseded" by Christ.
In fact, the Church has long taught that, far from abrogating His covenant with the Jews, God is faithful to it and to them.
But some fundamentalist Jews and Christians interpret that in terms of God granting the land of Israel exclusively to the Jews, and use that claim to justify Israel seizing land from Palestians, kicking them out of East Jerusalem, and expanding Jewish-only settlements. In that sense, Archbishop Butros' remarks were of a piece with the synod's final document, which notes that the “recourse to theological and Biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable.”
Whether or not Butros' remarks were well expressed -- and the Vatican's spokesman, Fr Lombardi, has made clear that people should look to the synod document itself, rather than individuals, as the voice of the synod -- they do not justify the Israeli minister's description of them as "a libel against the Jewish people and the State of Israel."
Even less true is the idea that the synod was a forum for attacks on Israeli policies. Almost all the speeches were taken up with the challenges for Christians in Muslim-ruled societies. What was said about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was limited to expressions of desire for peace, and a restatement of the Vatican's desire for a two-state solution. The concluding message spoke both of the damaging consequences of the occupation of the West Bank as well as of the suffering and insecurity of Israelis -- about as even-handed as you can get.
Indeed the absence in the synod of the kind of anti-Israeli posturing which so often accompanies gatherings of Arabs from different countries of the region was one of its most striking features. One thing anyone around the synod hall took away from the fortnight was this: the Middle East is much bigger than the Holy Land, and the Israel/Palestinian dispute.
And they would be amazed at the idea that the synod was a "forum for attacks on Israel". The charge is just plain silly.
[UPDATE: John Allen has a thorough analysis of the affair in his 'All Things Catholic' column here. And very usefully, he prints the full question and answer, which was as follows:
Question: In the “Message,” number eight talks about the dialogue with the Jews. That’s where you talk about the use and abuse of the Word of God and of faith itself. I would like to know why it’s under relations with the Jews, not relations with everybody -- since normally in the West we hear that it’s not the Jews who use the Scriptures to justify their actions.
Butros: In number eight of the Message, we say that we cannot resort to theological and Biblical assumptions as a tool to justify injustice. We want to say that the promise of God in the Old Testament, relating to the ‘promised land’ … as Christians, we’re saying that this promise was essentially nullified [in French, “abolished”] by the presence of Jesus Christ, who then brought about the Kingdom of God. As Christians, we cannot talk about a ‘promised land’ for the Jews. We talk about a ‘promised land’ which is the Kingdom of God. That’s the promised land, which encompasses the entire earth with a message of peace and justice and equality for all the children of God. There is no preferred or privileged people. All men and women from every country have become the ‘chosen people.’ This is clear for us. We cannot just refer to the ‘promised land’ to justify the return of the Jews in Israel, and [ignore] the Palestinians who were kicked out of their land. Five million Jews kicked out three or four million Palestinians from their land, and this is not justifiable. There’s no ‘chosen people’ any longer for Christians. Everybody is the ‘chosen people.’ What we say is something political. Sacred scripture should not be used to justify the occupation of Palestinian land on the part of the Israelis.]