Pope Francis’ Holy Land Partners
BUENOS AIRES — When Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi announced May 15 the itinerary for Pope Francis’ May 24-26 trip to the Holy Land, he noted that “Rabbi Abraham Skorka and Omar Ahmed Abboud, secretary general of the Argentine Institute of Interreligious Dialogue, will be in the papal delegation. The Pope knows them from … Argentina.”
So who are Rabbi Skorka and Omar Abboud? They represent two non-Christian communities with which Jorge Bergoglio has had frequent and friendly contacts as archbishop of Buenos Aires. The former is Jewish; the latter is Muslim.
Argentina is a country where these communities live together in harmony. On the same street can be found shops selling similar wares, all owned by Muslim Arabs, or Sephardi or Ashkenazi Jews. They coexist peacefully here, though in the Middle East or elsewhere the relationship can be non-existent, tense or troublesome.
There is also rapport among their leaders and institutions. “Here, there have never been any problems,” said Miguel Woites, who has headed the Argentine Catholic Information Agency (AICA) for more than 50 years.
Skorka lives in Buenos Aires but is already in Israel. He will not travel in the plane with the Pope to respect the Jewish Sabbath, since the trip begins on Saturday. Abboud traveled from Buenos Aires to Rome, where he is now and where I contacted him this week.
Abraham Skorka, 64, is a chemist and rabbi of the Benei Tikvá community, founded in Buenos Aires 75 years ago by Jews of German origin. He is also rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary, founded in 1962 by U.S. Rabbi Marshall Meyer. Almost 90 rabbis from several countries have graduated from that seminary. Skorka is a longtime friend of the Pope's.
One evening, in 2004, I was present at a visit that Cardinal Bergoglio made to the Benei Tikvá community, where he attended a service of Selijot (asking of forgiveness) to welcome the Jewish New Year 5765.
“Jorge Bergoglio and Abraham Skorka are friends,” I reported for the Buenos Aires daily La Nación. “Both are men who pray and praise God. One is cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires and primate of Argentina; the other, a rabbi of the Benei Tikvá community and rector of the Latin American Rabbinical Seminary. But they don’t talk only of theology and the meaning of life; they converse a lot about soccer. Jorge is a fan of San Lorenzo; Abraham of River Plate” (two well-known Argentine soccer teams).
In a full temple, Skorka said, “We have here present a man of faith of Christianity.” And, he specified, “We could give you many examples of our friendship, of personal shows of affection. We are not only two individuals who met seeking God. We are both standing before you, before God, trying to begin to do that which our sages taught us.”
That night, Skorka and his wife drove Cardinal Bergoglio and me downtown in their car. Last year, Skorka reminded me of this in an event at Buenos Aires’ Teatro Colón, in which the rabbinical seminary celebrated its 50th anniversary: “Do you remember that night in which we returned by car with the cardinal? Who would have been able to imagine that today he would be pope?”