Pope Francis and Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni at Rome's Great Synagogue
Pope Francis and Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni at Rome's Great SynagogueReuters

Rabbi Dr. Ratzon Arusi, head of the delegation of Israeli rabbis present at Pope Francis's historical first visit to the Great Synagogue in Rome on Sunday, put the pope in a bit of a quandary during the visit meant to show the Catholic church's support for the Jews.

The rabbi told Arutz Sheva that during the visit he turned to the pope and asked him to declare that the church recognizes the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, but the clearly embarrassed pope simply responded with silence.

Rabbi Arusi said that while the Catholic church has conducted something of an about face in recent years regarding its relations with the Jewish people, there remains much that it must do.

"The church ignores the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, they talk about the Holy Land, but not about the state of Israel," he said.

"Therefore during the meeting with the rabbis after the public event, I turned to the pope and I told him that we appreciate his words against anti-Semitism, but today there is a new and very fierce anti-Semitism built on the basis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

The rabbi called on the pope to be "the Balfour of the Catholic church, and since the land of Israel is the Holy Land and they recognize our birthright, they should declare that the state of Israel is the state of the Jewish people by virtue of the Bible, without diminishing the rights of the Palestinians to a state."

In response, "the pope was very embarrassed by my request, he was never told that directly, and afterwards he smiled but didn't say a thing. I think that the time has come for them to indeed recognize the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people."

Bringing a change?

The Vatican has in fact shown tendencies in quite the opposite direction from supporting the Jewish state of Israel.

Earlier this month the Vatican's historic first accord with "Palestine" came into effect, which recognizes the Palestinian Authority (PA) as having authority in eastern Jerusalem, and ignores the fact that Christians have been systematically persecuted under the PA.

Last May the Vatican declared that it would canonize "Palestinian saints," and during the pope's visit to Israel in May 2014 he made an unexpected stop at the security barrier between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in Judea to pray at a section with "Pope we need to see someone to speak about justice. Bethlehem look (sic) like Warsaw ghetto. Free Palestine" spray-painted on it.

Rabbi Arusi said that the despite the longstanding persecution of Jews at the hands of the Catholic church, it is important that dialogue continue.

"It is clear that religiously and personally there is great difficulty in taking part in events like these (i.e. the pope's visit - ed.), because the schism between the Catholic church and the people of Israel through all of the generations is great," he said.

"We continue these meetings and are happy to hear recently that the popes declare that the nation of Israel is the firstborn nation (to God). Once we were outcasts due to their revulsion, today they tell us that we are their eldest brother and they learn ethics from us, there is no doubt that that is important in an age of rabid anti-Semitism."

Rabbi Arusi noted that "the current pope...opposes the conversion of Jews, (which) is a very important statement. I know that there are those who oppose these meetings, but it is good that the public know they are being held, and good that a sane voice is heard that with God's help will bring a change."