Growth of Christianity tests Jewish-Christian ties - East Valley Tribune: Spirituallife

Growth of Christianity tests Jewish-Christian ties

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Posted: Saturday, July 15, 2006 7:53 am | Updated: 2:30 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The world used to be much smaller for Jewish groups trying to win Christian friends. Interfaith relations once were a matter of Jewish leaders shaking hands at the Vatican, seeking out mainline Protestants in the U.S. and Europe, and forging ties with American evangelicals over Israel.

But the landscape of Christianity is transforming, creating a new challenge in the drive for mutual acceptance: Christian churches are growing fastest in the developing world and, in a generation or two, will eclipse their northern counterparts in size and influence.

The outlook of some of these churches is warm toward Judaism but still different than that of American and European Christians, and will require an outreach strategy far broader than the one Jewish leaders adopted after World War II.

‘‘The balance in terms of influence is shifting southward,’’ said Rabbi David Rosen, who directs interfaith work internationally for the American Jewish Committee. ‘‘It’s certainly an issue we need to give much more attention to.’’

The changes are not all negative. In Africa, where the Christian population grew from about 10 million to 423 million during the 20th century, many feel an affinity for Jews and Israel.

African Christians place a heavier emphasis on the Old Testament than northerners do, partly because they see in the sacred book a reflection of their suffering — from poverty to illness to moral corruption. Jacob Olupona, a Harvard University expert on African religion, notes that many African Christians, including him, have Old Testament names.

Visiting Israel is so important to Nigerian Christians that many put ‘‘J.P.’’ — meaning Jerusalem pilgrim — at the end of their names after they travel to the Jewish state, just as Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca add ‘‘al Hajj’’ to their names, Olupona said.

‘‘The African Christians see the Jewish land as sacred to them, too,’’ he said.

In Latin America, the situation is less promising.

Jewish leaders say the declaration of the Second Vatican Council four decades ago, that rejected collective Jewish guilt for the death of Christ, has not sunken in on the predominantly Roman Catholic southern continent.

While this problem is not new, it has gained urgency because Hispanics are bringing their views with them as they move to the United States in growing numbers, Jewish leaders say. About 28 percent of adult U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, and their presence in the church is increasing.

It’s ‘‘classic European anti-Semitism transported to Latin America,’’ said Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights group.

The shift is occurring at an already anxious time for Jewish groups.

The generation of Christian leaders who lived through the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is dying out. Pope Benedict XVI, a 79-year-old German, could be the last pontiff to directly experience the war.

Meanwhile, with the Catholic Church winning millions of new adherents in Africa and Asia, Vatican observers say it is only a matter of time before the church has its first Third World pope. The next wave of Christian leaders will have different concerns, and may not view relations with Jews as a priority.

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