This is an important week for Jews and Christians. Jews celebrate the first day of Passover on Thursday, and Christians celebrate Good Friday, followed by Easter on Sunday. Both holidays link sorrow with liberation as the tragic gives way to redemption, with rejoicing in the renewal of spring.
The Last Supper, famously rendered in the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, was a Passover Seder, after all, which in Christian teaching was followed by the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Christ. The two holidays have been entwined in history since, and the word Pasch, originally "Passover," means Easter, too. The holidays do not always fall so closely together as this year (2006 by the Christian calendar, 5766 for Jews).
Neither have the two faiths always been tolerant or respectful of each other. But now they're enjoying a renewal of mutual appreciation. The turning point was the Vatican's adoption in 1965 of "Nostra Aetate" ("In Our Time"), the papal encyclical deploring anti-Semitism at any time, from any source, and further declaring that the Crucifixion of Christ cannot be blamed on the Jews. Among those present at the adoption were Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II, and Joseph Ratzinger, the German cardinal who became Pope Benedict XVI.
Last year, on the 40th anniversary of the adoption of "Nostra Aetate," Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican designate for Catholic-Jewish relations, said that Catholic confrontation with the Holocaust and support for the state of Israel was merely "the beginning of the beginning" in the evolving relationship of Catholics and Jews, and it has been an important rapprochement. The Nostra Aetate has influenced better relations between Protestants and Jews as well; indeed, evangelical Christians in America are among Israel's most stalwart friends.
It's no secret that the 2,000-year history of Christian-Jewish relations has been a turbulent one. The blood libel of the Middle Ages perpetuated the vile tale that Jews kidnap Christian children to get their blood for a recipe to make matzoh. In this century, the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion," a forgery devised by the Czarist secret police in 1903, was revived by the Nazis and is used by Islamists today to justify the killing of Israelis.
The threat of Islamofascism has pushed Jews and Christians closer, further developing a bond between the two faiths. The suspicion in which Jews have often held Christians in America has largely dissolved, even as anti-Semitism is on the rise throughout the Middle East and in parts of Europe. Jews sympathize and share the grief of Christians for their brethren in Afghanistan. International pressure saved Abdul Rahman, a Christian convert in Kabul, from beheading, but other Afghan Christians live in continuing fear of prosecution and persecution for their private religious beliefs.
Christians and Muslims lived in relative tolerance if not always harmony in Afghanistan before the Taliban came to power in the mid-1990s. But Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Taliban, ordered the burning of churches and the hanging of Christian converts. Foreign Christians were ordered to leave the country or face death. The 2004 Afghan constitution, a gift of the intervention of "the coalition of the willing," guarantees freedom of religion, but it's only a paper guarantee.
Journalists routinely change or omit the names of Christians when they interview them in Afghanistan. "Many in power in the judicial branch are imams or clerics who have little interest in the constitution," a Christian convert tells der Speigel, the German newsmagazine. Christians worship in fear and secrecy, and mere possession of a Bible can be fatal.
Many Muslims decry this intolerance, but few say it very loud, often for fear of their own lives and safety. "Moderate Islam" has become an oxymoron where Islamists rule or reign. The "clash of civilizations" may not be inevitable, but Islam, the third monotheistic religion of the world, is, sadly, perceived more for violent intolerance than for an inspiring spiritual message.
As Christians and Jews congregate this week to mark their holidays and to enjoy the renewal of spring, they celebrate the hope that embraces their holy days. Jews commemorate the freedom earned when they left slavery behind in Egypt. Christians call on the faithful in all nations to "raise the strain of triumphant gladness." The spirit triumphs when men and women live in dignity and peace with one another in the sure and certain hope that good can overcome evil. Happy Easter. Shalom.