Jewish leaders on Friday canceled a meeting with Pope John Paul II at short notice to avoid stoking controversy over a Roman Catholic convent at the site of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in what was German-occupied Poland in World War II.
“It was mutually understood that some items on the agenda had the potential for exacerbating tensions, and it was considered more productive to reschedule the meeting,” the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith said in a statement as the organization announced the highly unusual move.
Vatican-Jewish relations have been seriously strained over the community of Carmelite nuns, who in 1984 established a small convent on the site of the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland where more than a million Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution died.
Catholic and Jewish delegations agreed in Geneva in 1987 that the convent would move to a new building outside the camp by last Feb. 22, but the transfer has not taken place. Polish bishops said the nuns had not left the camp because the new building was not ready.
Rabbi Leon Klenicki, head of inter-faith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, and a member of the delegation that was to have met with the Pope, said the Jewish side decided Thursday night to call off the meeting.
“We felt that the audience would have put the Pope in a very peculiar situation,” Klenicki said.
He stressed the Jewish decision should not be interpreted as a snub to the Pope, whom Jews have praised for his strong stand against anti-Semitism.
In another unusual move which church sources said would not be appreciated by the Vatican, the league released the text of the address its U.S. national president, Burton S. Levinson, was to have made to the Pope.
Levinson urged the Pope to “find an effective reply to the tragic misunderstandings” over the convent.
“For the Jewish religious conscience, this defiled plot of land where nearly half of the 6 million were murdered, is synonymous with the Shoah (Holocaust) and must cry out in stark silence to all future generations,” his text said.