One of Francis’ first official acts last week was to write a letter to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, saying “I strongly hope to be able to contribute to the progress of the relations that have existed between Jews and Catholics.”
While documentation is scarce, the Jewish community in Argentina is thought to date back to at least the mid-1800s. The first Jewish wedding took place in 1860 and the first synagogue was built in 1897, according to the city of Buenos Aires. A second wave of Jewish immigrants came here after World War II.
In a sense, Bergoglio has been following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Buenos Aires Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, said Baruj Tenembaum, founder of the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation. Quarracino traveled to Israel and was deeply committed to the Jewish cause, Tenembaum said. It was Quarracino who installed the holocaust memorial in the National Cathedral. Tenembaum said the display is thought to be the only one of its kind in a Catholic church.
Shortly before he died in 1998, Quarracino wrote a letter saying he wanted to be buried at the foot of the memorial so he could continue “striving for [Jewish-Catholic] fraternity like I have been doing my entire life.”
But Bergoglio didn’t focus exclusively on the Jewish community, said Sumer Noufouri, the secretary general of the Islamic Center of Argentina. Noufouri said Bergoglio was a frequent visitor there also and that, in 2009, helped start the Islamic-Christian Dialogue, which sought to bring the two groups together.
“When he told his colleagues in Rome that [the Islamic community here] would visit him at the diocese, he said they were surprised; that they couldn’t believe it,” Noufouri said. “I think he’s going to be good for all of mankind, without exception.”