By Jim Wyss
Ezequiel Pontoriero / AP
BUENOS AIRES — Tucked into an alcove of Argentina’s National Cathedral, right beside an icon of the Virgin of Luján, is a wall of yellowed documents written in delicate Hebrew. The pages were rescued from the death camps of Auschwitz, the ruins of Berlin’s synagogue and the remains of this city’s Jewish community center.
The world’s Catholics and Jews have been moving toward reconciliation since the Second Vatican Council. But perhaps nowhere are the two faiths tighter than in Argentina, where many in the Jewish community are celebrating the recent election of their long-time advocate and friend, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as Pope Francis.
“This was a great event for us,” said Guillermo Borger, president of the AMIA Jewish cultural center, where then-Cardinal Bergoglio was a frequent visitor. “We know this pope very well and I am sure that he is going to look for truth and justice in this world.”
First as archbishop of Buenos Aires, and then as cardinal, Bergoglio, 76, used his office to build ties to Argentina’s estimated 250,000-strong Jewish community, the largest in Latin America.
In 2005, Bergoglio was the first of more than 80 dignitaries to sign a petition asking for justice in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA, which left 85 dead and more than 300 injured. While Iran has been suspected of coordinating the attack, the country denies it. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has drawn criticism for recently agreeing to team up with Iran to investigate the bombing.
Last year, amid upheaval in the Middle East, Bergoglio organized interfaith prayer services that drew Jews and Muslims to the National Cathedral.
Bergoglio also shared a cable television program with Argentina’s Chief Rabbi Abraham Skorka and they wrote a book together called “Above heaven and earth.”
Interviewed by the AJN news agency in Israel, Skorka said he was eager to “look into the eyes” of his old friend who he said has deep respect for Judaism and Israel.
Waldo Wolff, vice president of the Delegation of Israeli Associations of Argentina, said much of Bergoglio’s work was less formal. Bergoglio had many friends in the Jewish community and was a frequent dinner guest among association members, he said.
“Almost everyone has a picture with him,” Wolff said. “To have a picture with someone who is on their way to being a pope is not easy.”
On Tuesday, this South American nation will be following Francis’ inauguration ceremony, which will be broadcast live on a giant screen erected beside the cathedral. Among the hundreds of delegates in Rome will be 16 Jewish members, from organizations including the World Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League, the Vatican said. The event caps a flurry of activity that began Wednesday when the cardinal conclave surprised the world by electing the first Latin American pope.
On Monday, Kirchner met with Francis for about 20 minutes, the Vatican said. The two figures have often clashed over her administration’s liberal social policies, which include same-sex marriage and birth control. But Kirchner told The Associated Press that the meeting was friendly and that she had asked her old nemesis to intervene on behalf of Argentina in the dispute over the Falkland Islands. Argentina and Britain fought a war in 1982 over the remote islands, which are known as the Malvinas here. While Bergoglio has supported Argentina’s claims in the past, it’s unclear if he will continue his advocacy as the world’s most eminent Catholic.
One of Francis’ first official acts last week was to write a letter to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, saying “I strongly hope to be able to contribute to the progress of the relations that have existed between Jews and Catholics.”
While documentation is scarce, the Jewish community in Argentina is thought to date back to at least the mid-1800s. The first Jewish wedding took place in 1860 and the first synagogue was built in 1897, according to the city of Buenos Aires. A second wave of Jewish immigrants came here after World War II.
In a sense, Bergoglio has been following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Buenos Aires Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, said Baruj Tenembaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. Quarracino traveled to Israel and was deeply committed to the Jewish cause, Tenembaum said. It was Quarracino who installed the holocaust memorial in the National Cathedral. Tenembaum said the display is thought to be the only one of its kind in a Catholic church.
Shortly before he died in 1998, Quarracino wrote a letter saying he wanted to be buried at the foot of the memorial so he could continue “striving for [Jewish-Catholic] fraternity like I have been doing my entire life.”
But Bergoglio didn’t focus exclusively on the Jewish community, said Sumer Noufouri, the secretary general of the Islamic Center of Argentina. Noufouri said Bergoglio was a frequent visitor there also and that, in 2009, helped start the Islamic-Christian Dialogue, which sought to bring the two groups together.
“When he told his colleagues in Rome that [the Islamic community here] would visit him at the diocese, he said they were surprised; that they couldn’t believe it,” Noufouri said. “I think he’s going to be good for all of mankind, without exception.”