“In the Harmony of Diversity”: 50 Years After Nostra Aetate

Rainy weather did not deter the sea of poncho-clad and umbrella-clutching visitors eagerly awaiting the arrival of Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square. In the Square, we sat merely meters away from the papal stage to witness the Pope’s Interreligious General Audience on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the historic declaration passed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The Declaration welcomed a new age of positive dialogue and engagement between the Catholic Church and non-Christian religions. Written specifically to address anti-Semitism and the Church’s role after the Holocaust, Nostra Aetate took a stand against “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed at Jews at any time and by anyone” and subsequently marked the end of a long and tragic era in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations. The document also expressly noted the Church’s high regard for Muslims and officially acknowledged that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman greets Pope Francis following the Interreligious General Audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, October 28, 2015 [Photo courtesy: L'Osservatore Romano]

In front of thousands of witnesses and broadcast around the world, Pope Francis emphasized, “Mutual respect is the condition and, at the same time, the aim of interreligious dialogue: respecting others’ right to life, to physical integrity, to fundamental freedoms, namely freedom of conscience, of thought, of expression and of religion.” The Pope’s mutual respect for other religious leaders was evident as he shook their hands and offered a warm welcome following his address.

Our visit to Rome to attend the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate International Conference at the Gregorian Pontifical University was opportune. Translated from Latin, Nostra Aetate means “in our time;” And while the issues of 1965 differ from current challenges, in our time, anti-Semitism is not history, it is news. Immediately following the uplifting papal message we were met with the stark reality that combatting anti-Semitism still has a long way to go. As we departed the conference, we observed the words “Sieg Heil” and a swastika had been sprayed onto the very barricades that were used to guide people into St. Peter’s Square for the papal audience by neo-Nazi Lazio soccer fans. Over the past few years, Jewish communities in Europe have faced a significant upsurge of firebombing of business and synagogues, verbal harassment, vandalism, internet and media hate speech, physical assaults and even death.

Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman looks at the fascist graffiti just steps away from St. Peter’s Basilica, October 28, 2015 [State Department Photo]

As anti-Semitism persists and evolves, we all have a duty to speak out against it. During our time in Rome, thanks to the tireless assistance and impressive teamwork of the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See, we had the opportunity to meet with government officials, religious leaders, civil society representatives, students, and journalists to join in partnership and condemn anti-Semitic beliefs and actions.

But our efforts must not  end there. In our time, anti-Muslim sentiment is also on the rise. A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that Muslims are the least accepted in European societies among religious groups. Muslim men in Europe are four times less likely to get a job in France than practicing Catholics. There is also a proliferation of societal violence and discrimination that exists in the aftermath of terror attacks such as those in France, Belgium, and Denmark. Pope Francis aptly noted in his remarks: “Because of violence and terrorism an attitude of suspicion or even condemnation of religions has spread. In reality, although no religion is immune to the risk of deviations of a fundamentalist or extremist nature in individuals or groups, it is necessary to look to the positive values that religions live and propound, and that are sources of hope.”

Acting Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic States Arsalan Suleman meets Holy See Secretary of State Pietro Parolin following his remarks to conclude the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate international conference, October 28, 2015 [State Department Photo]

Thus now is the time for people of goodwill to proactively stand together to reject violence and hatred of all kinds. In a world characterized by news of increased sectarianism, religious extremism, and faith as a source of division instead of unity, it is a good news story that the Nostra Aetate declaration has made it possible for Jews and Christians to come together peaceably. And the Jewish-Catholic relationship stemming from the Nostra Aetate declaration serves as an example of how religious groups -- concerned with the fate of this world -- can join together and fight anti-Semitism, hatred, and intolerance of any kind.

The Holy See is looking at religion in a new way in the Middle East as part of the solution. When countries lose minorities, they lose part of their own heritage and culture. Pope Francis concluded his Nostra Aetate 50th anniversary message with the reminder that unity comes through diversity, not conformity. “Dear brothers and sisters,” he said, “as for the future of interreligious dialogue, the first thing we have to do is pray, and pray for one another: we are brothers and sisters!...May our prayer -- each one according to his or her own tradition -- adhere fully to the will of God, who wants all men and women to recognize they are brothers and sisters and live as such, forming the great human family in the harmony of diversity.”

We couldn’t agree more; Now is the time.

About the Authors: Ira Forman serves as the U.S. Department of State's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism and Arsalan Suleman serves as the Acting United States Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.



steven K.
California, USA
December 3, 2015
well written
Pope Francis prays during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican
December 3, 2015


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