VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Asking Christians, Muslims and others who want to become Israeli citizens to pledge loyalty to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” does not demonstrate democratic respect for full religious freedom, said a patriarch from Egypt and a bishop from Lebanon.
Coptic Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Alexandria, Egypt, and Maronite Bishop Bechara Rai of Jbeil, Lebanon, were asked about the proposed oath during a news conference Oct. 11 at the Vatican for the special Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.
The majority of members of the Israeli Cabinet voted Oct. 10 to require the loyalty oath from new, non-Jewish citizens. The Israeli parliament still has to vote on the oath.
Figures distributed to journalists covering the synod by the Israeli embassy to the Holy See Oct. 8 reported a total Israeli population of just more than 7.2 million people in 2007. About 5.5 million of those people are Jewish, about 1.2 million are Muslim, and just 152,000 are Christian.
One of the key topics for discussion at the Middle East synod’s first news conference was how to promote “positive secularism,” a form of separation of government and religion that allows people’s faith to have a role in society without consecrating one religion as the religion of the state.
Patriarch Naguib said of the proposed Israeli oath, “I think it would be quite contradictory. You can’t announce, publish and affirm the existence of a democratic state, a civil democracy, and at the same time say, ‘In our democracy, we impose this.’”
“Personally, I don’t think it’s logical,” the patriarch said. “Personally, I think it’s a flagrant contradiction and it’s curious that this is coming from a country that declares itself the most democratic state — or sometimes says it’s the only democratic state — in the Middle East.”
Bishop Rai did not respond directly to the question about the Israeli oath, but he did respond to a question about the sensitivity of Arab Christians when an Old Testament reading at Mass speaks positively of “Israel.” The first reading used at the synod’s opening Mass, celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI Oct. 10, included the line, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”
Patriarch Naguib had explained that the readings at the papal Mass were those of the Latin-rite liturgy for that Sunday and were not chosen specifically for the synod.
Bishop Rai said, “This is sensitive because when the people hear the word ‘Israel,’ they immediately think of the state of Israel. And I confess that to avoid this sensitivity, when I read I say, ‘the people of God’ because Israel means the people of God.”
The bishop then asked Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, “Is it permissible not to say ‘Israel’ if we use ‘people of God’”?
Father Lombardi said the words in the readings at Catholic liturgies should be those in the translation approved by the local bishops’ conference.
Bishop Rai said he wasn’t asking “officially, but pastorally so that the people can understand.”