Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Powder Springs

Israeli News Director Touts Jewish-Catholic Relations

By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 3, 2007

Daniel Seaman, the director of the Israeli government’s Press Office of the Prime Minister, found his greatest hope for the future of his country with the visit in 2000 to Israel by Pope John Paul II.

As the Vatican and Israel work through contentious issues to normalize relations, Seaman said that the papal visit still resonates a spirit of goodwill and collaboration.

“I’ve been working for the government now for 25 years. The event that in my eyes, until this day, has been the peak of my activity, (was) the pope’s visit six years ago. It was such a time of hope and a time of mutual understanding. I’ve lived in Israel for 35 years. … When we were making the preparations for the pope in anticipation of the visit … I learned so much about what’s interesting about Israel myself, locations that are important to Christianity, and it increased my appreciation of the state of Israel,” he said, while visiting Georgia recently. “The visit of the pope brought so much hope for the future, and we still feel that. If you ask anyone in my office what was the best time we had at work, it was the pope’s visit. So we’re looking forward to a new visit by the new pope, and hopefully it will happen as soon as possible.”

Pope John Paul II was committed to the tradition of the Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate,” which renounced anti-Semitism and called for dialogue and a deeper understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus. During his papacy, he affirmed Jews as elder brothers in faith to Christians, acknowledged a common heritage, and brought the Holocaust to the forefront of consciousness as he apologized several times for sins of individual Catholics during World War II. He also organized a memorial concert and visited Auschwitz. The Polish pope acknowledged Israel as the Jewish homeland and prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall. He affirmed that Jews are not guilty of deicide and that there is no supersession of Judaism by Christianity but an ongoing covenant between God and the Jewish people.

Pope Benedict XVI, a native of Germany who served Pope John Paul II as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has affirmed continuation of that legacy as his priority also.

Seaman is confident that Jewish-Catholic relations remain the pope’s concern, after centuries of strained relations.

“The most important thing I believe is that both Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI believe in strengthening the bonds between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church and the state of Israel. We’re getting beyond the things that separated us in the past and into the things that Pope Benedict XVI was actually most influential in dealing with. He was pretty much behind the movement by Pope John Paul II, and we believe he is a strong believer in the Jewish-Catholic bond of friendship.”

Seaman affirmed that the Vatican plays an important peace-building role in dialogue among Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

“They’re not only bridging relations between Jews and Catholics, Jews and Christians, but they are also bridging relations between all religions. We feel that the pope does have an important part to play in building relations, in building bridges between the faiths in Israel.”

Seaman spoke with The Georgia Bulletin at a reception March 15 at Trinity Chapel in Powder Springs before giving the keynote address at “An Evening for Israel,” an interfaith event sponsored by the Israel Always volunteer organization, focused on uniting Christians of all denominations and Jews in supporting Israel.

Seaman said the Israeli government supports the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ efforts for peace in the region. But he also pointed out that, while the church criticizes some Israeli security policies, such as restricting Palestinian access into Israel, it must vigorously address injustices of the Palestinian Authority, as the elected party Hamas has not acknowledged Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign nation, and has not renounced violence against Israeli citizens or brought to justice those responsible for violence.

He believes the Catholic Church needs to critically consider steps the Palestinian government and Hamas must take to improve the lives of ordinary Christians in the Palestinian territory, beginning with respecting other faiths. Hamas has a goal to create an Islamic state. Christians are leaving Palestinian areas, he said, attributing that to problems they are having under the Palestinian Authority.

However, church representatives in the area believe Christians, about 2 percent of the Palestinion population, are leaving in part because they cannot find jobs and are denied ready access to education and employment in Israel.

“The Christians are leaving Bethlehem, leaving Ramallah, while they flourish in Israel, in the areas under Jewish control,” Seaman asserted. “I think the Catholic Church does have a responsibility not to overlook that aspect of it and not only cater to empty words but also demand to see action, that Christians feel safe in Palestinian and outlying areas.”

It is shortsighted to overlook how Palestinian policies contribute to the Christian exodus from the Holy Land, he suggested.

“It’s hard being a minority in an area that doesn’t always respect democratic values, and I’ll just leave it at that. The Christian population in Bethlehem and Ramallah flourished under the so-called Israeli occupation. And since Israel has relinquished control of these areas to the Palestinians, for the first time in history since the Christian era, Christians in Bethlehem have become a minority. … You have to ask the questions why are Christians leaving Bethlehem, why are Christians leaving the holy places?”

He pointed out that when East Jerusalem was under Jordanian rule before 1967 there was not freedom of religion, which Israel guarantees.

“Forty years ago there was not full freedom of religion in Jerusalem for all faiths, full right of religious freedom in Jerusalem, which was the holiest place for Jews. Once Israel took over the Old City in May 1967 we promised freedom of religion for all religions and respect for all religions and to this day it happens.”

Last November, during a session on the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, the Vatican nuncio to the United Nations called for the United States, the U.N., Russia and Europe to lead the way to resume negotiations for a two-state solution in the region.

Archbishop Celestino Migliore also called for international guarantees of “permanent, free and unhindered access” to religious sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Holy Land, in light of “the numerous incidents of violence and challenges to free movement posed by the security wall” separating Israel and Palestinian territories.

Seaman commented on the rationale behind the Israeli security wall under construction, which has been sharply criticized by the church. He said it is a reasonable response to attacks by Palestinian terrorists.

“The terrorism that has occurred in Israel over the last six years required Israel to take measures to curb the violence. We could have done it in a military way, but we chose to do it in a nonviolent way and one of those ways has been the barrier—in some places it’s a wall, in Jerusalem you can see it’s a wall. In populated areas a fence will not be able to prevent terrorists from getting through. If you have an open field and terrorists get through you still have time to intercept them before they get into a Jewish-populated area. … If we kept a fence, literally within seconds they are in a Jewish-populated area, so unfortunately we have to set up a wall in those areas,” he averred. “But the state of Israel has taken measures to allow the Arab population to have access to government facilities. By the way, things that didn’t exist before, they have government facilities inside Arab areas. Before they had to come to Jewish areas for their services. Today they are built to give them direct access to schools, churches.”

He acknowledged the consequential hardship faced by innocent Palestinians.

“Certainly there is an inconvenience, and there’s no good way to go about it. The thing we have to weigh is the lives of our children and the inconvenience of the Arabs on the other side. … We take whatever measure we have to defend that because the freedoms of our society were abused by the extremists, and that abuse was costing the lives of Israelis. The wall doesn’t take the life of a single Palestinian. If it makes their lives uncomfortable, they did not stand up to the terrorists,” he said. “The Catholic Church believes in the right to life. The right to life is not only pre-conception. The right to life is also when you are born, so I think that they should respect that and understand because we took measures that were nonviolent to thwart terrorists” and protect the fundamental right to life for Israelis.

But despite disagreements over the sensitive issue of the Palestinian Christian minority, Seaman remains hopeful that Israel and the Vatican can fruitfully dialogue for the common good of the Holy Land.

“The fact that we have an embassy there, the fact that the Vatican and the Catholic Church speak about these things, as long as we’re talking there’s room for understanding and cooperation,” he said.