Thursday, November 11, 2004

Israeli at Vatican

Obed Ben-Hur, Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, swept through the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center near Catholic University yesterday with a kind word for Catholic-Jewish relations, even kinder words for the pope and a gibe against Catholic filmmaker Mel Gibson.

Our correspondent Julia Duin was at the sumptuous kosher meal served to 48 guests on the cultural center’s third floor.

Mr. Ben-Hur began his brief remarks with hopes for peace in the Middle East.

“With the fading out of someone behind the wheel who has not been cooperative,” he said, referring to dying Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, “maybe we can get a brighter horizon, maybe a more promising future.”

He was far more effusive toward Pope John Paul II, who grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in his native Poland and had Jewish friends.

“No one like this pope knows what it means to be Jewish,” Mr. Ben-Hur said. “No one else understands their sufferings [like John Paul].”

The pope visited the Auschwitz concentration camp shortly after his elevation to the papacy in October 1978, then visited Rome’s Great Synagogue in 1986, established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992 and visited Israel in March 2000.

“What more can you expect from one pope?” the ambassador asked. “I should say, he is one of the greatest lights of our day.”

He disparaged Mel Gibson’s international blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ,” saying it backs a theology that Christians have replaced Jews as God’s chosen people.

“There are people who have a theory of replacement,” he said, “and we just saw a film of someone who believes in that.”

He begged his Catholic hosts to send large numbers of pilgrims to Israel and to join Israelis in facing a common enemy.

“It’s an extremist Islam, a terrorist Islam,” he said. “We are facing a reality that’s not very promising, and we have to be strong.”

After all, he mused, Catholics number 1.2 billion believers in 47 countries.

“Israel cannot treat these people as a black hole, so to speak,” he said, “which we have for a number of years.”

Mr. Ben-Hur spoke on the 66th anniversary of the notorious Crystal Night, when Nazis rampaged through Germany attacking thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues on Nov. 10, 1938.

Concern in Russia

The U.S. ambassador in Moscow is worried that Russian President Vladimir Putin is concentrating too much power by weakening the authority of regional governors.

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow told Moscow Echo radio this week that even President Bush has “expressed concern over the recent proposed reforms and also over the erosion of a system of checks and balances.”

Without checks on central authority, “we think a democratic society cannot exist,” Mr. Vershbow said.

The Russian parliament has given initial approval to Mr. Putin’s plan to replace the direct election of governors with candidates selected by Moscow and approved by regional parliaments. The plan must pass two more procedural votes.

Mr. Putin says the reform is necessary to combat terrorism. He is also pressing for a change in the system for election of members of parliament. Currently half of the members are elected by party lists and the other as individual candidates. Mr. Putin proposes a system of proportional representation only.

In his interview, Mr. Vershbow also said the United States is worried about instability in the Caucasus, including Russia’s rebellious Chechnya region and separatist violence in neighboring Georgia.

The conflicts could “breed instability in surrounding countries, including Russia, itself,” the ambassador said.

Russia blamed Chechen terrorists for a murderous attack on a school in September.

• Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail

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