Robert Karp (text and photos, transl. M.D.)

The visit to the former Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was the last item on the program of the 30-person delegation of the Council of Leaders of Israel’s Religious Communities. During the debate at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim, the delegates spoke about the profound experiences that accompanied this visit. They also presented the Declaration of the Council of Religious Community Leaders in Israel.

The debate was preceded by a visit to the former camps Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau. The delegates visited, among others block 11 with the cell of St. Maximilian Kolbe, an exhibition entitled “Shoah” prepared by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, barracks and a ramp at the former Auschwitz II camp – Birkenau. They also laid commemorative wreaths at the Death Wall and the International Monument to the Victims in Birkenau. At the end, they prayed together with the words of the psalms, in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

The discussion at the Center for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim, chaired by Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Affairs, was an opportunity to summarize the four-day stay of delegates in Poland. The participants were greeted by the director of the Krakow Foundation Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim, Fr. Jan Nowak.

Then Fr. Manfred Deselaers, vice president of the foundation, emphasized that Auschwitz is a centre open to everyone, not only Christians, and that in order to understand the contemporary significance of this place, it is first necessary to understand its history and let the soil speak. He added that Auschwitz encourages us to relate the history of this place to ourselves, to discover what this place tells each visitor. “I discover for myself what this place says to me as a German, as a Christian, as a Catholic priest,” he confessed. He also mentioned that he often asks visitors from all over the world what this place is for them and, as he reported, the answers vary depending on the context of every life. He emphasized the great importance of reflection on the mutual relations of people, nations and believers of different religions, to which the visit to Auschwitz encourages. Referring to the role of the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer, he also recalled that each dialogue begins with mutual listening.

Bishop Grzegorz Ryś greeted the gathered people. The priest shared his experiences related to Auschwitz with the participants. “Every time I am here I feel a deep responsibility for what happened here. That is why I try to come here often and work for inter-religious dialogue in Poland”, he said. The Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Krakow noted that memory and history go side by side. “These are parallel roads, but not the same. History is of interest to historians, but what really matters is memory, because we all have it. When we have it, we know what we want to extend in our lives, Europe and the world. The shape of the future depends on memory”, he explained.

Then, representatives of individual denominations in Israel took part in the first historic inter-religious visit to Poland. Everyone emphasized the enormous experiences that accompanied exploring places related to the 1000-year history of Jews in Poland. They also said that the history of the Holocaust should be an inspiration to deepen inter-religious dialogue, build peace and reconciliation, and oppose all forms of terrorism and discrimination.

Chief Rabbi Dimony Yitzhak Elefant referred to the figure of John Paul II as an example of a person who, thanks to religion, inflamed people and changed the world. He wished God to bless the fruits of the visit.

Partiarch Theophilus III, head of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, emphasized that Auschwitz is a place that should speak to the next generations, and the world must look for the right words to express the truth that this place carries. He recalled that persecution of Christians continued, especially in the Middle East, where ancient tribes were dying and many people were being displaced from their homelands. Recalling the question “Where was God?” often asked in the context of persecution, he emphasized that God is the creator and protector who, through the Incarnation of his Son, wanted to save man and will never abandon him. He emphasized that religious leaders from the Holy Land have a great responsibility to build peace, not only because many dramas are taking place today in the Middle East, but also because every crime against man is also a crime committed against God. He called for a new commitment to reconciliation and peace-building. The clergyman noted that Auschwitz is “a terrible reminder into what abysses a person can fall in his inhuman form. “Unspeakable atrocities have been committed here”, he stressed and noted that anti-Semitism is on the rise in many parts of the world. “Persecution of nations because of ethnic origin or religious beliefs are growing especially in the Middle East, where former societies face extinction and millions of people have to move on a scale unknown since World War II”, he added.

In turn, Archbishop Georges Bacouni, a Catholic-Melkite metropolitan, recalled the responsibility for Christians persecuted today in the Middle East. He said that after three days of learning about the history and memories of Jews from this part of Europe, which were very difficult for him, he himself began to ask God why he allowed the sacrifices of so many innocent people. “I wonder what those innocent victims who died here would tell us, what they would ask for? They would say: you talk too much! You organize meetings, take a lot of photos, but where is the peace? ” he asked rhetorically.

The Druze Sheikh Mowafaq Tarif called to protect the world from Holocaust-like tragedies and to build a society based on mutual respect. He said that it is the responsibility of every human being to raise his voice against every violation of human freedom and all forms of violence, to defend human dignity and do everything possible to prevent conflict from breaking out.

During the debate, the following spoke also, inter alia, Sheikh Mohammad Kivan, Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem Suheil Dawani and Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Apostolic Administrator of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Minister Wojciech Kolarski read a letter from the President of the Republic of Poland, Andrzej Duda, addressed to the delegates who came to Poland. “I perceive this meeting today at the Centre for Dialogue and Prayer as a symbolic act of resistance against the immeasurable evil that has been done here and against all the ideologues who have justified evil”, wrote the president.

At the end of the meeting, the text of the Declaration of the Council of Religious Community Leaders in Israel was read out.

Declaration of the Council of Religious Community Leaders in Israel

November 2, 2016

We, the leaders of the major religions in Israel and members of the Council of Religious Community Leaders, believe in the Creator, who rules the world with benevolence and mercy, and requires of us to live with all persons in peace and mutual respect.

Our religious heritages teach that peace and the pursuit of justice are the will of God, and we as religious leaders bear particular responsibility to be attentive to the cries of the poor and the weak among us and to act to advance a more just society.
As the leaders of the official religious communities in Israel, we have decided to embark together on an historic visit to Poland, and to the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau. This visit is meant to honor the memory of millions of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust, and to express the determination of the leaders of the religious communities in Israel to do everything in their power to prevent the recurrence of such atrocities.

We call on all world leaders to act, in their countries and through the United Nations, to act with unwavering resoluteness against antisemitism, hatred of the other, which once again plague contemporary society.

We declare our commitment to cooperate and to do everything in our power to carry out this important call in the Holy Land as well, to strengthen the harmony and understanding that exist in Israel among the various religious communities.
In order to establish peace and mutual respect among members of religions throughout the world and in our country, we must educate our communities and children accordingly, and prevent affront to the feelings and beliefs of others.

Here, in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the site of the most horrific crimes against humanity in history and the symbol of ultimate evil, where the murder of millions of Jews and others – men, women and children – was perpetrated by Nazi Germany, we declare our commitment to the sanctity of human life. We repudiate racism, fanaticism and extremism, particularly when these are committed, allegedly in the name of religion and in so doing desecrate religion.

The Council of Religious Community Leaders in Israel calls for an end to war and a prayer for peace in keeping with the vision of the prophets: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.” Isaiah 2:4

The Council of Religious Leaders in Israel includes the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the Muslim religious establishment, the Christian churches in the Holy Land, the Druze Religious Authority, the Ahmadiyya Muslim, Baha’i and Samaritan communities.