The leader of Portugal's Roman Catholics has issued a public apology to the local Jewish community for the suffering imposed on it by the Catholic Church, which in the 16th century supported an inquisition that expelled countless Jews or forced them to convert to Christianity.

As an international religious gathering—Oceans of Peace: Religions and Cultures in Dialogue—closed in the capital, Lisbon, on September 26, Dom Jose Policarpo, the Catholic Patriarch of Lisbon, expressed his church's regrets to the Portuguese Jewish community.

Speaking in the center of Lisbon, at the place where the inquisition once held its hearings, the patriarch apologized for his church's actions. After reading a short declaration of guilt and repentance, Dom Jose Policarpo embraced three Jewish rabbis and other representatives of the nation's Jewish community.

"This historical center of Lisbon, where today we embrace in friendship, has in the past been the stage for intolerable acts of violence against the Hebrew people," the patriarch said. He added that the church should not forget "the pressures [on Jews] to convert, the popular uprisings, the suspicions, the denunciations, the process of the Inquisition.

"As the major community in this city for close on 1,000 years, the Catholic Church recognizes that her memory is deeply stained by these words and deeds, so often carried out in her name, which are unworthy of human dignity and of the Gospel she proclaims."

Oceans of Peace, the thirteenth inter-religious event organized by Rome's St. Egidio community, brought 142 official participants to Lisbon's Belem Cultural Center. Panel discussions, prayer services and other events were open to the public, attracting about 2,000 people. The meeting was jointly organized with the Lisbon patriarchate and supported by the Mario Soares Foundation, set up by the former Portuguese president of the same name.

The meeting, which included 70 leaders of Christian churches and organizations, and 40 leaders from other faiths, received considerable attention in the Portuguese media, with major national newspapers devoting entire pages to it for several days running.

Among those attending the event were Catholics Aram I of the Armenian Apostolic Church, who is also moderator of the central committee of the World Council of Churches, Uganda's Cardinal Emmanuel Wamala, the Lutheran World Federation's (LWF) general secretary, Dr Ishmael Noko, the Jewish Chief Rabbi of Haifa, Shear-Yasuv Cohen, and the Muslim moderator of the World Conference on Religion and Peace, Jordan's Prince El Hassan bin Talal.

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Leading politicians from Cape Verde and Morocco joined Portugal's political leaders at the meeting.

However the small proportion of women - nine out of 142 – among the official delegates prompted comment from many observers, including those present at the final press conference. Professor Andrea Riccardi, founder and president of the St. Egidio community, replied that his organization did not select participants, but rather invited religious communities. The exclusion of women reflected reality in the churches, Riccardi said.

Many participants also pointed out that the Oceans of Peace meeting took place under the cloud of the Vatican's recently published declaration, Dominus Iesus, which describes the Roman Catholic Church as the only true church. Noko said that the LWF had hoped in vain that the joint declaration on the doctrine of justification, signed by Lutheran and Catholic officials last year, might have helped influence the Vatican document. In spite of the differing views, Noko said, the LWF remained committed to ecumenism and to dialogue with the Catholic Church. "One day the long ecumenical conversations will come to a successful finish," he said.

Riccardi said at the press conference that Dominus Iesus had been on everyone's lips. "But we are not firemen," he said, commenting on the role of the meeting. He downplayed the Vatican document's damage to ecumenism and praised the "sincere climate" of the Lisbon meeting. "We feel a unity rooted in different identities, but with a common destiny," he added.

Despite Dominus Iesus, Pope John Paul II, in a message read to the Lisbon meeting by the Vatican's chief ecumenical officer, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, stated that his church's commitment to Christian unity remained a priority. The Pope also welcomed progress in the Catholic Church's encounters with Judaism, Islam and other faiths. "At the dawn of the new millennium we must not slow our pace," the Pope said. "On the contrary, it is necessary to hasten even more on such a promising journey."

The meeting closed with signing by the different religious leaders of "the Lisbon Appeal" which completely rejected the notion of "religious war."

"We strongly affirm ... that religions never justify hatred and violence," they said. "Peace is an indivisible value. It comes from God and it belongs to the whole humanity. Speaking about religious war is an absurdity, and it contradicts the most beautiful name of God, which is Peace."

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The appeal also emphasized the importance of dialogue as the way to overcome mistrust and conflict. "Dialogue does not weaken the identity of anybody, but rather provokes every man and woman to acknowledge the best part of the other and to express the best of himself or herself. Nothing is lost with dialogue. Everything is possible through dialogue."

Related Elsewhere

Other media coverage of Oceans of Peace includes:

Vatican seeks to build religious bridges—CNN (Sept. 25, 2000)

Vatican Looks To Mend Religion Ties—Associated Press (Sept. 24, 2000)

Previous Christianity Today articles about Dominus Iesus include:

Poland's Catholic Bishops Reject Criticism of Dominus Iesus | Ratzinger's declaration that Protestant denominations are not proper churches is making waves in pope's birthplace. (Sept. 20, 2000)

Dominus Iesus a 'Public Relations Disaster' for Ecumenism, Say Critics | Vatican's statement reasserting itself as the one true church lamented inside and outside Catholicism. (Sept. 13, 2000)

Not All in the Family | Vatican official proclaims Protestant churches not "sister churches" to the Roman Catholic faith. (Sept. 6, 2000)