DAMASCUS, Syria – A prominent Syrian historian alleges that American and European Zionists prodded the Vatican into absolving Jews of responsibility for the death of Jesus. Another says that under Pope John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church has fallen under Jewish influence.
Like many Arabs, Syrians sometimes seem obsessed with trying to detect signs of what they believe is a "Jewish lobby" with vast, worldwide influence. U.S. Middle East policies, Western news reporting and deals by multinational companies are favorite objects of their scrutiny.
Now that Pope John Paul is visiting Syria, his attempts to make peace with Judaism and other faiths have become the latest target. The criticism of his actions began even before his arrival Saturday on a four-day visit.
Soheil Zakar, one of Syria's top historians, recently argued that "immense pressure" by American and European Zionist groups forced the Vatican in 1965 to absolve the Jews from the "historical responsibility" for the death of Jesus.
"It is like a pope who comes along and says, 'I don't care about the historical side of Christianity and I am only concerned with the creation of a new Christianity for a new world,"' said Zakar, a Muslim whose 1983 book Popes From the Jewish Ghetto claims that three medieval popes were of Jewish origin.
The Greek Catholic Bishop of Damascus, Isidore Battikha, whose church recognizes the primacy of the pope, said such charges against the Vatican "are fantasies. Wrong fantasies."
"It is true that his holiness the pope has apologized to the Jews, but he also apologized for all the wrongs of the church in its history," Battikha said.
Arabs' concern — some would call it paranoia — over what the world's Jews are doing is a byproduct of the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict.
This obsession has led to accusations by Israel and sometimes the United States that the media in Syria, Egypt and other Arab lands are anti-Jewish. Arab defenders maintain that what the critics see as anti-Jewish is really aimed at treatment of the Palestinians.
Bashir Zohdi, a Muslim historian, touched on this point in a comment about John Paul's visit.
"The pope is a big world figure and I believe that he has a responsibility to become more familiar with the details of the Palestinian question and to defend the rights of the Palestinians who are being killed every day," said Zohdi, who is director of Damascus' National Museum.
A Syrian Catholic historian, Michel Munir, alleges in a new book that Pope John Paul is the architect of a conspiracy to undermine the Catholic church by placing it under the control of Jews.
"Ever since his election ... John Paul II has not spared any effort to strengthen the Jewish faction within the Catholic church," Munir wrote in his book A Synagogue Within the Church.
Munir's book hit bookstores about a month before the pope's visit. The papal trip to Syria was meant in part to trace the travels of St. Paul, who spread the Christian faith throughout the Roman empire in the first century after he had a vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus.