Building relations between the Church and Jewish communities
By Gudrun Sailer and Christopher Wells
Each year on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the world observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day, commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, or Shoah.
At his Wednesday General Audience, Pope Francis looked ahead to Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying, “May the remembrance and condemnation of that horrible extermination of millions of Jewish people and those of other faiths, which occurred in the first half of the last century, help us all not to forget that the logic of hatred and violence can never be justified, because they negate our very humanity.”
In October 2023, the World Jewish Congress opened a “Representative Office to the Holy See,” headed by Viktor Eichner.
“Our goal was to build an even stronger relationship and be a bridge between the Catholic Church and Jewish communities around the world,” Eichner said in an interview with Vatican Radio ahead of the International Day.
Speaking with Vatican News' Gudrun Sailer, Eichner highlighted the Pope and the Holy See’s “commitment to preserving Holocaust memory and talking about the victims of the Holocaust,” describing Pope Francis as “a great partner and a great friend... in this matter as well.”
“We really appreciate the Holy Father mentioning this to believers and raising this issue around this date.”
Transcription of the interview with Viktor Eichner, Head of the World Jewish Congress Representative Office to the Holy See:
Q: The World Jewish Congress recently opened a Representative Office to the Holy See in Rome, which you run. Why is it important for your organisation to have a presence in Rome?
In October 2023 we opened our office in Via della Conciliazione which is very close to the Vatican, and our goal was to build an even stronger relationship and being a bridge between the Catholic Church and Jewish communities around the world. Als the World Jewish Congress, we are representing over 100 different Jewish communities around the world. And it's very important for us to advance interfaith dialogue and build a strong relationship with Catholic communities locally, but also on an institutional level.
Q: At this week's general audience, Pope Francis recalled - as he does every year - the Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 January. The horrific mass murder of millions of Jews in the 20th century should remind us all that the logic of hatred and violence is never justified, the Pope said. To what extent do you see Pope Francis and the Holy See as allies in your concerns for the World Jewish Congress?
Yes. Over the years the Holy Father and the Curia was very, very clear about their commitment to preserving Holocaust memory and talk about the victims of the Holocaust. And this is very important for us. And we see a great partner and a great friend in Pope Francis in this matter as well. We have a campaign called “We remember”, an online campaign, and a few years ago, the Holy Father was kind enough to participate in this campaign and holding a sign with a “We remember” text, which means that promoting the remembrance of the victims is even more important nowadays after the horrific attacks last year. And we really appreciate the Holy Father mentioning this to the believers and raising this issue around this date.
Q: Now, the war between Israel and Hamas following the attack by Hamas terrorists on Israel last October has led to an increase in anti-Semitic violence in many parts of the world. How do you assess the situation right now and what can the Holy See do?
Last October has changed the reality of the Jewish communities around the world, especially Israelis. The Hamas attack proved our deepest fear that what would happen if they would have the opportunity to hurt Israelis, they committed acts of violence in a level we would never have thought, rape, torture of civilians and killing of children, women and men. And this had to effect and disaffected very deeply Jewish communities around the world. The increase of violence and violent rhetoric against Jewish communities were unprecedented since October 7th. And Jewish communities started to be threatened and started to be in danger, I would say around the world after the attacks.
We are very thankful for our friends who are supporting us, but we also have to initiate that there is a very important differentiation between act of terrorism and between crimes against humanity and between a defensive war against these evils. And we really hope to cooperate with the Holy Father and with the Holy See and to continue to fight against anti-Semitism, which we have a great partner, and we really hope it's going to continue.
Q: The World Jewish Congress represents Jews in all parts of the world outside Israel. How is the Jewish population developing worldwide?
As I mentioned before, we are representing over 100 communities around the world. And our most important goal is to preserve and foster Jewish life in these places. The Jewish communities in most of the countries in the world are living in peace and living in cooperation with their local community and in close partnership with other interfaith partners, which is, I believe, very important to advance interfaith dialogue in order to have even better coexistence in many, many places. The last months showed that this can change very easily. We think that as people are loud, loudly anti-Semitic in many, many situations where they have an opportunity to, we really think that our friends also have to fight against anti-Semitism, because fighting against anti-Semitism and preserving Jewish life is not only a Jewish issue, it has to be an issue of the public and has to be shifted in Jewish community. Jewish communities are deeply rooted in the countries where they are in and they would like to live there and they would like to have a safe life. And we are always looking for partners to work on and to and to help each other. And we really hope there are going to be opportunities where we can do that.
Q: Just a glance at, say, statistics. How many Jews are there living outside Israel, and how are those communities developing on a numeric level?
There was a big celebration a few years ago when the number of Jews in Israel surpassed the number of Jews in the United States. So I believe in Israel, there are around 7 million Jews, in the United States around 6 million. These are the two biggest communities, but all around the world, we like to say it's around 15 million Jews all over, in different communities. The big communities in Europe are in France, Germany and the United Kingdom and the growing communities are also in Central Europe, like in Hungary or in other central European capitals as well. The Jewish community is growing slowly by numbers, but it's growing and it's very important for us to keep it this way. We would like to support and preserve the Jewish communities and encourage them to live in peace and to work together with other partners.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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