Avatar photo

Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of UK in Holy See

31st October 2013

Christians and Jews: A Roman Initiative

Pope Francis receives in Audience the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, October 2013

The Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Zion Evrony, recently took the initiative to invite diplomatic colleagues and officials of the Holy See to the Great Synagogue of Rome. The synagogue is one of the largest in Europe, built in 1870 between the Tiber and the old Jewish ghetto. The Chief Rabbi of Rome, Dr Riccardo Di Segni, and the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, spoke to the visitors about the intertwined cultural, intellectual, historical and social relationships between Jews and Christians in Rome and beyond. The Chief Rabbi reminded us that John Paul II was not the first Pope to visit a synagogue in Rome. That honour fell to St Peter, nearly two thousand years ago.

The Jewish Museum in the basement of the synagogue tells of the vibrant history of Rome’s Jewish community, displays some of their treasures, and also, of course, relates the dark times: the pogroms, the expulsions, and the round up of Jews in Rome by the Nazis in 1943. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum has in recent years been reconsidering and modifying its criticism of the role played by the Vatican and Catholic Church during WWII, most notably in relation to Pope Pius XII. Yet a recent exhibition marking 50 years of honouring the Righteous Among Nations is still cautious in its assessment: “The lack of overt and unequivocal guidance by the Vatican left the decision to initiate rescue of Jews to the heads of Catholic institutions. Some superiors of convents, monasteries and other institutions opened their doors to Jewish fugitives, sometimes with the knowledge of the Vatican. In some cases Bishops and other Catholic leaders called on their clergy and believers to help the Jews”.

There is real movement in the current relationship between the Holy See and global Judaism. In May last year, Cardinal Koch – the lead Vatican official on Jewish relations – told a gathering that: “the Catholic Church is obliged to denounce anti-Judaism … as a betrayal of its own Christian faith”. Pope Benedict XVI followed John Paul II in visiting the Great Synagogue in Rome. And Pope Francis’ own messages have been unequivocal. “Since the Second Vatican Council”, he has written, “we have rediscovered that the Jewish People are still for us the holy root that produced Jesus”. And in July, speaking to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations, the Pope said (and he has repeated it since): “Because of our common roots, a true Christian cannot be an anti-Semite”.

The Israeli Ambassador’s initiative was well timed. The windows are being opened, and fresh light cast on the complex and sometimes tragic history of the relationship between Christians and Jews. Just in the last month, Pope Francis has received a delegation from the Jewish Community in Rome on the 70th anniversary of the deportations, and representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Vienna. A further step is likely to be taken next year, when Pope Francis – as is expected – visits Israel and Palestine. This is the right direction of travel.

About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

Follow Nigel