KANSAS CITY — In 1994, the Holy See established full diplomatic relations with Israel, creating a Vatican Nunciature (a top-level diplomatic mission) in Jerusalem and an Israeli embassy in Rome. Zion Evrony, PhD., is the sixth Israeli to serve as ambassador to the Vatican. He visited Kansas City Oct. 8-9, speaking at Rockhurst University as part of the Visiting Scholars Program, the first time a diplomat in his position has traveled to Kansas City or Rockhurst University.
Father Thomas B. Curran, Rockhurst’s president, had met and invited Dr. Evrony to visit Kansas City and Rockhurst during a 2011 mission trip to Israel with other Midwestern university leaders. That trip’s sponsor, the Chicago-based Consul General’s Office to the Midwest, and Kansas City’s Jewish Community Relations Bureau|American Jewish Committee helped to bring Dr. Evrony to Kansas City.
The Ambassador addressed nearly 400 people on Oct. 8. His talk, laced with humor and personal reflections, gave an overview of the advancement of Christian-Jewish diplomatic relations and friendship.
He finds the “job is very interesting, unique and sensitive… to create more understanding for Israel’s unique circumstances and the threats it faces.”
Shortly after his arrival in Rome last year, “I presented my credentials to Pope Benedict XVI, and had a private audience … an event I will always cherish and will never forget.”
He first met Pope Francis when the pope received the diplomatic corps. “He greeted me warmly, saying ‘Shalom’ in Hebrew and asked me to pray for him. His style, his new universal message of modesty, caring for the poor, love of peace and interreligious dialogue, makes [it] especially interesting to work with the Holy See.”
Dr. Evrony pinpointed 1904, the year following a meeting between Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism, and Pope Pius X, as the dawn of political relations between Israel and the Vatican. Herzl tried to solicit the pope’s support of Zionism, the idea of a Jewish State in Palestine. The Ambassador said that Pius X “rejected the idea outright,” reasoning that as the Jews did not accept Jesus, the Church could not recognize the Jewish people’s right to territorial and national sovereignty over the Holy Land.
He explained that the rejection of a Jewish State was rooted in the Christian theological views of the time — the ancient Jewish State’s destruction “was proof of the wrath of God who established Christianity as the universal substitute for the Jewish people and for worship in the Temple. The Church was perceived as the Verus Israel (True Israel).”
More than a century lies between that encounter and Dr. Evrony’s meetings with Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, a century of changing attitudes and relationships.
“Relations today between Israel and the Holy See are good and based on mutual trust,” he said, “and the relations between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church may be the best in 2,000 years.”
Dr. Evrony joined the Israeli Foreign Service in 1973 after three years of military service and a brief stint as a journalist. He served as Ambassador to Ireland (2006-2010); Consul General in Houston (1995-2002) and Consul in New York (1987-1991). He said that serving as Israel’s Ambassador to the Holy See is “unlike any other diplomatic mission I have ever had. Relations between Israel and the Holy See are unique … theology and politics are intertwined and influence each other.” He sees himself as “Israel’s ambassador to the Catholic world because the Holy See has great influence and moral authority over 1.2 billion Catholics.”
He and his wife Rita, a social worker, have three children.
Dr. Evrony divided the century-long diplomatic relationship between the Holy See and Zionism/Israel into four periods:
• 1904-1948 – Pope Pius X rejects Zionism, the idea of a Jewish State in Palestine.
• 1948-1967 – Israel is established as an independent State in May 1948. The Vatican accepts the reality of the establishment of the State of Israel, but complains about damage to holy sites, Jerusalem not being internationalized, and the problems of Palestinian refugees, especially Christian Palestinians. “Israel’s approach to the Catholic Church,” he said, “during its first years … was dictated by realpolitik, but also by the unique, historical, emotional, religious burden it bore.” In 1965, a theological change occurs when the document Nostra Aetate, in part exonerating the Jewish people, both historically and in the present, for the crucifixion, is adopted.
• 1967-1993 – In the wake of the Six-Day War, and the reality of Israeli control over Jerusalem and the Holy Sites, the Vatican adopts an approach of dialogue with Israeli officials to solve problems of Israeli Christians. A policy of non-recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem continues, countered by the realization that the Catholic Church’s interests can be best served by working together.
In 1984, the State of Israel and the historic religious bond between the Jewish people and Israel is finally recognized. In 1986, Pope John Paul II visits the Great Synagogue in Rome — the first papal visit to a synagogue. He addresses the Jewish people saying, “With Judaism … we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way … our elder brothers.”
• 1993-today – The Fundamental Agreement, establishing normal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel, was signed in 1993. From the Vatican’s standpoint, friendly relations between the two states paves a path to reconciliation between Christians and Jews. Israeli leadership sees it as normal diplomacy.
The signing of the Agreement has had long-term positive effects. Ambassador Evrony said, “As the Deputy Foreign Minster of Israel at the time put it, ‘Behind this document are thousands of years of history characterized by hatred, fear, ignorance and scant dialogue.’” In the 20 years since, the Vatican has affirmed cooperation in combating all forms of anti-Semitism and advancing closer ties with Israel. Israel has committed to maintaining the status quo in the Christian Holy Places.
The 2000 visit of Pope John Paul II and the 2009 visit of Pope Benedict XVI, he said, showed that the Holy See recognized the Jewish People’s right to a State. “Pope John Paul II … did more than anybody … for reconciliation and dialogue with the Jewish People and Israel. Visiting the Kotel (the Wailing Wall) he inserted a letter in a crack that read: ‘God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.’” The tradition of reconciliation he began continued with Pope Benedict XVI and now with Pope Francis, Dr. Evrony said.
Despite the friendship between Israel and the Holy See, issues of interest and concern on both sides still require dialogue, the ambassador said. Israel is interested in expanding political dialogue with the Vatican and, “obtaining its public support of Israel on issues including Iran, the various calls to destroy Israel and the Palestinian issue.” It also seeks more joint cooperation in cultural and academic affairs, he said.
The Vatican’s interests include the future of Jerusalem and the Holy Sites in Israel; the condition and rights of Christian communities in Israel and the West Bank, especially in Bethlehem, and free access to places of worship, Dr. Evrony said. Attacks on priests and religious and vandalism of churches and monasteries in the Holy Land are of concern. The Holy See also wants to finalize the financial agreement that guarantees the Church’s rights in the Holy Places and the domestic legislation that guarantees its implementation.
Dr. Evrony stressed that the incidents of vandalism and clergy attacks “committed by a few hoodlums, cause Israel great damage. We have to find a way to stop it. It creates a false image of no religious freedom in Israel, while the reality is the opposite.”
Dr. Evrony said, “All of you know that it is possible to pray to God everywhere and anywhere, but when you arrive at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and you want to call God, you will discover that it is considered a local call.” As the chuckles faded he said more seriously, that “Jews and Christians — despite theological differences — recognize that much more unites than divides us. We share the same human nature, the same values, hopes, desires and dreams for a better life. The world has and will always have a need to believe and hope. We have a saying: we always have to keep a sense of optimism because, in the Holy Land, if you don’t believe in miracles you are not a realist.”
He concluded with a prayer from Psalms: “Pray for the peace in Jerusalem.”
The next morning Ambassador Evrony spoke with Rockhurst University students and later joined Father Curran in placing a wreath at the plaque honoring 152 Jesuits who perished trying to rescue and protect Jews during the Shoah. He stood, head bowed for a moment, in silent reflection, perhaps in prayer for the peace in the world.