BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The election of Pope Francis has thrilled Jewish leaders in Argentina, who predict that their friend will continue to foster warm relations and open dialogue between Catholicism and other faiths during his pontificate.
They've seen it firsthand as recently as December, when then-Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio lit the first candle on the menorah at Temple NCI-Emanu El during a Hanukkah ceremony.
"He's got a very deep capacity for dialogue with other religions," Rabbi Alejandro Avruj told The Associated Press on Monday, recalling the moment. "He spoke of light as renovation, of the re-inauguration of the temple of Jerusalem 2,200 years ago, and the need to carry light to the world."
As Tuesday's papal installation ceremony draws dozens of Jewish, Orthodox and other Christian leaders to the Vatican, those who knew Bergoglio in his previous role say he considered healing divisions between religions a major part of the Catholic Church's mission.
"He's the one who opened the cathedral of Buenos Aires for interfaith ceremonies, like when we prayed for peace. He's not one of those who waits for you to call them to participate in these events — he promotes them," said Avruj, who met Bergoglio after both leaders launched projects in the same slum in a gritty area of southern Buenos Aires.
Bergoglio brought leaders of the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical and Orthodox Christian faiths into the Metropolitan Cathedral to pray for peace in the Middle East last November. "Everything is lost with war, everything is gained through peace," Bergoglio said then. "With peace wins victory and respect."
The archbishop also welcomed Jews for a joint service on the 74th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night in 1938 when nearly 200 synagogues were destroyed, Jewish shops were looted and tens of thousands of Jews were sent to be exterminated in Adolf Hitler's Germany.
And he also sponsored interfaith prayers after Pope Benedict XVI offended Muslims in 2006 by quoting a Byzantine emperor as saying some of the Prophet Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."
That time, rather than criticize Benedict directly, Bergoglio let a lower-ranking priest lead a service in which he himself did not participate. But leaders of other religions were impressed nonetheless.
This dialogue between religions "isn't just a photo op," Omar Abboud of the Islamic Center of the Argentine Republic said then. "It's a genuine and well-reasoned commitment under construction, because we know that we cannot get by without this dialogue."
Guillermo Borger, president of the Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association, said Bergoglio came often to the association's headquarters, which was rebuilt on the site of Argentina's worst terrorist attack, the still-unsolved 1994 bombing that killed 85 people. "We're sure that given the sensitivity that Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, had here, I really believe that he'll continue to support us.
"We've spoken often about this idea of the power of working together, and we expect that he'll continue to do it this way as pope, this way of acknowledging the past so that finally we might achieve justice. ... We've had long talks about this and we're absolutely on the same page."
One rabbi who is particularly close to Francis is Abraham Skorka, whose friendly debates over religion, politics and social issues with the archbishop became so enjoyable that they decided to invite a writer with a tape recorder along. Their dialogues were published in 2010 as "On Heaven and Earth." Then, the two men kept it up on a program each Friday on the Archdiocesan TV channel.
"Is it true that Argentines don't want dialogue?" Bergoglio asks in the book. "I wouldn't say so. Rather, I think we succumb as victims of attitudes that don't permit us to have dialogue: arrogance, not knowing how to listen, hostility in our speech, attacking the messenger and so many others. Dialogue is born from an attitude of respect toward the other person, from a conviction that the other has something good to say."
Associated Press writers Debora Rey and Michael Warren contributed to this report.