Pope Francis
Pope FrancisReuters

Perhaps for the first time in centuries, Christians are on the run. Ethnic and religious groups face persecution to various degrees at all times, but the Christian experience in the Arab Middle East has been especially stark. With the fall of Saddam Hussein and further amplification of extremist Islam, Christians have run across the region looking for new homes or have fled the Middle East entirely.

It is an experience more often associated with Jewish history than the Christian one, but the parallels are even more apparent in an era where Jews are experiencing a new wave of Muslim anti-Semitism across Europe.

The two experiences dovetail and laid the foundation for this week’s meeting between a delegation of from the Conference of European Rabbis (CER), including Moscow Chief Rabbi Goldschmidt, and Pope Francis I of the Vatican. Francis, like the Popes before him, has a tremendously busy schedule. Any meeting he has tends to be of significance for the people that attended it.

For Sol Bukingolts, it was his second sit down with a Catholic Pontiff.

“The first time I met a Pope was when John Paul II was in Latvia and he visited Riga,” says Bukingolts, who was Chief Economic Adviser to former Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga (1999-2007).

“This is a very important and pivotal meeting for the Jewish-Catholic relationship. I think the protocol was especially well orchestrated. Both segments are facing similar situations right now.”

Back in 1993 when Bukingolts met John Paul II, Jews and Catholics also had much of the same concerns: reinvigorating the religious faith of millions who had seen religion suppressed under communism. Today’s concerns are much more physical than spiritual, yet are profoundly mystical nonetheless.

“The value is not just in the religion, but of the beliefs themselves. Unfortunately, today you see a separation between these things. People might go to houses of worship where they don’t believe in God, don’t believe in good or don’t believe in kindness.”

Pope Francis spoke of the need to maintain strong faith in God despite the rise of atheism in the Western World, a resonant message that easily translated for the Rabbinic delegation.

“You can imagine the depth is up to what each side understands prior to the meeting, also what each side wants to clearly state about their positions," says Bukingolts, who is also former Executive Director of the Russian Jewish Congress and a board member of the CER.

“There is a big difference between hearing each other and listening to each other. Today, it is obvious we want to do both and lay a common path to understanding  of what has happened to Christians in the Middle East aside from Israel and what has happened to the Jews in Europe.”

Francis is reported to have said: “The anti-Semitic tendencies and certain acts of hatred and violence in Europe are of concern. Every Christian cannot but be firm in the condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism.”

“It is as terrible for Jews to hear of Christians being thrown off boats in the Mediterranean as it is for Christians to hear of the burning of the Jewish people in Auschwitz,” added Bukingolts.

The meeting was not as much about a substantive cooperative strategy to help beleaguered Jews and Christians though, but to lay the groundwork for that cooperation.

“I think the cornerstone was laid out, including for fortune communications with Cardinals, the Pope and the Chief Rabbis of Europe.” They identified “what has to be done to avoid further damage to the Christians and to the Jews,” said Bukingolts.

When asked if the Jewish community was taking an advisory role in any way, perhaps to help the Vatican devise a policy that would protect refugee Christians fleeing war zones in Syria or Iraq, Bukingolts said this meeting did not go into that sort of detail. For now, this is an extension of a decades-old effort to repair Jewish-Catholic relations after centuries of atrocities.

“We’re not advising the Vatican or confronting. We are trying to continue the dialogue that started about 35 years ago when the Pope visited a synagogue for the first time in Rome. This was a historic meeting for the two great religious leaders – I think it is ultimately a very positive step and an important occurrence during a time when we hear what’s happening with ISIS and people being thrown overboard. This is a hope for peace and common understanding and to proceed to finish off the difference the religions might have had versus the beliefs people ought to have in this new page of history.”

The unity of religious leaders when challenged by faithlessness and religious radicalism is paramount, says Bukingolts. In his opinion, the current era is one of massive historical significance that adds a certain amount of foreboding to the meeting with such critical issues on everyone’s mind.

“Historically speaking, we are witnessing another page being written in our history, not just for the Jewish people or the Catholic people but all humanity. We, as intelligent people must realize the consequences of past history and recognizing the possibilities of the future for our kids.”

“It is clear today that we all understand the responsibilities that we carry, the powers that we have and the abilities that we possess to stop this nonsense of killing each other and destroying the world.”