Jewish leaders warn Pope off anti-Semitic ‘Pharisee’ stereotype

Pope Francis is being urged by experts to take greater care when referring to "hypocritical" Pharisees, a stereotype that fuelled centuries of bad blood between Catholics and Jews.

Jewish leaders warn Pope off anti-Semitic 'Pharisee' stereotype
Pope Francis (R) meeting with members of the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Photo: Handout / Vatican Media/AFP
Catholic-Jewish relations blossomed after the Second Vatican Council — which in 1965 finally urged respect for Judaism — and Francis is a clear friend of the Jews, insisting the Church continue to seek pardon for anti-Judaism.
But for centuries, Jesus's Jewish origins were obscured and the Jews were held collectively responsible for his death. And the pontiff's tendency to quote directly from the New Testament, where Jesus slams members of the small religious and political group as “hypocrites”, has been troubling rabbis concerned about anti-Semitism.
Some 400 Jewish and Christian bible scholars gathered in Rome last week to exchange research notes on the Pharisees, a group which little is known about historically but which came to represent all Jews.
The image of the treacherous Pharisees appears down the centuries in dictionaries, academic articles, films and Protestant and Catholic preaching, with the word “Pharisee” becoming a synonym for hypocrite in the West.
“They lacked life. They were, so to speak, 'starched'. They were rigid… The people didn't matter to them: the Law mattered to them,” Francis said of Pharisees in a homily in October.
The 110-year-old Pontifical Biblical Institute, headed by Jesuits, organised the conference and helped write a speech Francis delivered to the participants Thursday, in which he acknowledged the dangers of quoting the bible without context.
“The word 'Pharisee' often means 'hypocritical' or 'presumptuous' person. For many Jews, however, the Pharisees are the founders of Rabbinic Judaism and therefore their spiritual ancestors,” the Argentine pontiff wrote.
“History has favoured negative images of the Pharisees, despite there not being any concrete basis in evangelical narratives”, he said, describing the stereotype as “one of the oldest and most damaging”.
Francis asked the experts to carry on with their research in order to arrive at a “more accurate vision of this religious group”, which will contribute to “combating anti-Semitism” and “overcoming old prejudices”.
He also admitted the Pharisees should be addressed “in a more appropriate way in teaching and preaching”.
According to Rabbi David Rosen, director of interfaith affairs at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), merely mentioning the word Pharisaic “does not make somebody an anti-Semite”, but “it is definitely a component of 
People should “put it in context, or at least use 'those Pharisees' or 'those Jews',” he told AFP.
“We've raised the issue” with the pope, he said, adding: “I don't think he will use things in quite the same cavalier manner”.   
Argentine Rabbi Abraham Skorka, an old friend of the pope, said Francis would now know “how to present the Pharisees”.
“We had already talked about it, but he replied 'I'm quoting the New Testament',” he told AFP. “The pope has so many things on his mind,” he said, but insisted: “It is both a small and a big detail at the same time”.
Amy-Jill Levine, a New Testament and Jewish Studies professor, said it was important to “translate scholarly findings into how Christian leaders preach and teach about the Pharisees”.
Skorka, who has known Francis for years and often corresponds with him by email, said the aim was “to polish the areas of friction in Jewish-Catholic relations”.

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Pope calls for a quicker vaccine rollout in Italy’s Easter Sunday message

Pope Francis proclaimed vaccines an "essential tool" in ending the pandemic in his Easter Sunday address and urged their swift rollout to the world's poorest countries.

Pope calls for a quicker vaccine rollout in Italy's Easter Sunday message
Pope Francis delivers his Urbi et Orbi Blessing, after celebrating Easter Mass on April 04, 2021 at St. Peter's Basilica in The Vatican during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / POOL / AFP)

On the holiest holiday for the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics and the second under the shadow of the coronavirus crisis, the Pope focused his message on the world’s most vulnerable – the sick, migrants, people facing economic hardship, and those living in war zones like Syria, Yemen and Libya.

“The pandemic is still spreading, while the social and economic crisis remains severe, especially for the poor,” the 84-year-old Argentine said, speaking to a congregation of only around 100 people inside the vast St. Peter’s Basilica.

“Vaccines are an essential tool in this fight,” he said, calling on the international community to overcome delays in distributing vaccines, “especially in the poorest countries”.

READ ALSO: Children lead the way in Italy’s reduced Good Friday service

Francis, who has focused on the plight of vulnerable groups since becoming pope in 2013, had already warned rich nations against vaccine hoarding in an address to the UN General Assembly in September.

The pope said it was “scandalous” that armed conflicts around the world had not ceased. He called for an end to the war in Syria, “where millions of people are presently living in inhumane conditions”, and in Yemen “whose situation has met with a deafening and scandalous silence”.

A deserted St. Peter’s Square in The Vatican, after the Pope’s Easter Mass and Urbi et Orbi blessing during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

He also expressed his closeness to Myanmar’s youth – “committed to supporting democracy” – called for dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and urged an end to violence in Africa, citing Nigeria, the Sahel, Northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region and Cabo Delgado in Mozambique.

“There are still too many wars and too much violence in the world,” Francis said, adding that April 4th marked an awareness day against landmines, “insidious and horrible devices”.

An Easter message in Lockdown before a key month in Italy

The Pope’s Easter “Urbi et Orbi” (To the city and the world) message in the Vatican came as 60 million Italians spent the Easter holiday under lockdown.

The whole of Italy, the first country in Europe to have been hit by the coronavirus, has been declared a high-risk “red zone” from Saturday through Monday, with restrictions on movement and restaurants closed along with non-essential retail.

READ ALSO: Covid-19: What can you do this Easter in lockdown Italy?

Despite the gloom, there have been hopeful signs that vaccinations are gaining pace in Italy, while infection rates dipped in late March – although emergency rooms remain under enormous strain.

April is set to be a crucial month for Italy’s vaccine rollout, with authorities hoping to administer 300,000 doses per day within two weeks, according to the country’s coronavirus commissioner, General Francesco Paolo Figliuolo.

Three regions, including that of Veneto, which includes Venice, are also preparing to slightly loosen their anti-coronavirus rules from Tuesday onwards, passing from the most restrictive “red” zone to “orange”.