01 February 2017, The Tablet

Catholic chapel to become first Sicilian Synagogue in 'righting of an historical wrong'

The Edict of Expulsion in the fourteenth century forced Jews who refused to convert to Christianity to leave Sicily

The Catholic Church in Palermo has made a significant step towards healing ancient wounds with the Jewish community, allowing one of its chapels to become the first synagogue in Sicily for 500 years.

The chapel, part of the church and monastery of St Nicolas Tolentino, is built on the ruins of the Great Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter of Palermo.

“It’s the closing of an historical circle and the righting of an historical wrong,” said Michael Freund, founder and chairman of Shavei Israel, who has long campaigned for a Sicilian synagogue. 

The move came about largely due to the friendship formed between Rabbi Pinhas Punturello who serves in Sicily and the Archbishop of Palermo, Corrado Lorefice.

“It is with great joy that we have responded to this request,” said the archbishop. “This transfer is the product of a genuine friendship and ongoing dialogue between the Church and Palermo’s Jewish community.”

Rabbi Punturello said the archbishop was “open minded, friendly and sincere. He really believes in the equality of all people in front of God.”

Mr Freund agreed that Jews in Sicily had been fortunate in the appointment of Archbishop Lorefice, 18 months ago.

“He showed great vision and courage to take this step. It is a remarkable gesture of reconciliation – he could easily have rebuffed our requests.”

Rabbi Punturello said he was thrilled by the development.

“We are going to pray where people from the Jewish community used to pray using the same words for more than eight centuries. The feeling is almost too much.” 

In the fourteenth century, when Sicily was ruled by Spain the Edict of Expulsion forced Jews who refused to convert to Christianity to leave. Historians believe there were up to 100,000 Jews in Sicily.

Around 30 Jews now live in Palermo and another 15 are preparing for conversion.


PICTURE: Palermo Archbishop Corrado Lorefice with Shavei Israel’s emissary to Sicily, Rabbi Pinhas Punturello

Photo courtesy of Shavei Israel

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