In a critical move that could dramatically affect delicate relationships between the American Jewish community and the Vatican, the American Jewish Congress said Thursday that it will boycott a September meeting of Jewish leaders with Pope John Paul II in Miami because of the pontiff's decision to meet with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim next week.
At the same time, two Southland rabbis said they will boycott the Pope's Sept. 16 interfaith meeting in Los Angeles.
"We . . . believe it would be inappropriate for any Jewish leader to attend" the largely ceremonial meeting at the Japanese Cultural Center, Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a letter to the Southern California Board of Rabbis, which has been assigned 19 of the 700 seats at the event. The 45-minute exchange with the Pope will include 400 Southern California representatives of Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faiths.
Miami Is First Stop
In addition to the American Jewish Congress, the three other major Jewish organizations scheduled to take part in the Sept. 11 meeting with the pontiff in Miami are considering withdrawal, a spokesman said Thursday. Miami is the first stop on John Paul's nine-city U.S. visit from Sept. 10 to 19.
"We have reluctantly decided that the American Jewish Congress' representatives will not participate in the meeting with Pope John Paul . . . and we will remove our institutional sponsorship of the event," said Henry Seigman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, a civil rights group based in New York.
Waldheim, who has been barred from the United States because of his Nazi past, will fly to Rome for a private papal audience next Thursday. The journey will be Waldheim's first official trip outside Austria since he was elected president last year.
In the stormy campaign, Waldheim, a Roman Catholic, was accused by Jewish groups of complicity in Nazi war crimes during World War II when he was an intelligence officer in the German Wehrmacht. Waldheim, who served as U.N. secretary general from 1972 to 1982, was also accused of concealing those activities during his postwar diplomatic career.
Announcement by the Vatican on Wednesday of the formal audience with the pontiff triggered angry responses from Jewish leaders throughout the world and put the Miami meeting with major U.S. Jewish groups in jeopardy.
The American Jewish Congress has 50,000 members in 300 local groups. The other organizations involved in sponsoring and organizing the half-hour meeting at the Miami Cultural Center with the Pope are the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, and the Synagogue Council of America, a federation of congregational and rabbinic Jewish religious groups.
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee, said a meeting of the International Committee for Interreligious Consultations, a coordinating body of Jewish groups that acts as liaison with the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, was planned for this morning in New York to discuss Jewish participation in the Miami dialogue.
To Poll All Members
"We will have to poll the members around the room, one by one," Tanenbaum said in a telephone interview.
"What we want to do is get a clearer picture of the facts of the situation and some explanation of why the Pope decided to receive Kurt Waldheim in spite of the fact that every major Western democracy . . . has refused to receive him because of his Nazi past and having lied about his past," he added.
"My understanding is that . . . no decision will be made . . . until we (also) have had further conversations with the Vatican Embassy and with members of the American Catholic hierarchy."
Timothy Dolan, a secretary to Archbishop Pio Laghi, the apostolic pro-nuncio who represents the Vatican in the United States, said the papal meeting with Waldheim is not likely to be canceled.
Need for Dialogue Cited
"(The Vatican) would hope that the meeting with Mr. Waldheim and Holy Father would not threaten the September meeting," he told the Associated Press. "If anything, the controversy might show the need for continuing dialogue and discussion with Jewish leaders.
"Just because (the Pope) meets with someone, doesn't mean he approves of his past," Dolan said. "There wouldn't be too many leaders he could meet with that would be free of controversy."
In Israel, Holocaust survivors and Jewish leaders said the meeting hinted at Vatican acceptance of the World War II Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews and sent pleas to the Polish-born pontiff to cancel the visit, United Press International reported.
"On this issue you are wrong," wrote Israeli Parliament member Shevach Weiss in a telegram sent in Polish on Thursday.