‘Pope’s rabbi’ urges calm after Jewish prosecutor dies in Argentina

WASHINGTON (RNS) Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Argentina’s most famous Jewish citizen and a close friend of Pope Francis, was on the road this week when news from Buenos Aires shocked his nation and made headlines around the world.

Given Argentina’s large Jewish community — 250,000 people — the news hit too close to home for Skorka.

On Sunday (Jan. 18), the Jewish prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of Buenos Aires’ Jewish center — an attack that killed 85 people, including friends of Skorka — was found dead in his apartment with a bullet in his head.

Skorka, who arrived in the U.S. for a one-week tour the day of Alberto Nisman’s death, urged calm after tens of thousands of Argentines — Jews and non-Jews alike — took to the streets in Buenos Aires and other major cities, rejecting initial government assertions that the prosector had killed himself.

“Let us wait to see truly what the truth is,” said Skorka, before addressing an interfaith audience at a Washington synagogue. “We need to know the truth. This is not a specific Jewish problem. It is a problem that involves all of Argentine society.”

Skorka’s wait-and-see reaction was notably more muted than that of the crowds in Argentina, who implicated the government in both Nisman’s death and a cover-up of the bombing investigation.

Skorka, who became fast friends with Francis when the pontiff was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, has visited or traveled with the pope five times since he was elected pope in 2013. The two, who authored the book “On Heaven and Earth” together, still email and talk on the phone.

Skorka said he had not yet discussed Nisman’s death with the pope, who, as an auxiliary bishop in Buenos Aires, was the first to sign a highly publicized 1994 letter demanding a full investigation of the bombing.

“I am sure he is in shock, as I am,” said Skorka. “I am sure what he is thinking now is: ‘Will God bless Argentina in order to avoid more dramas?'”

On the streets of Buenos Aires, home to Latin America’s largest Jewish population, many of the protesters’ signs implicated the Argentine government in Nisman’s death and the 1994 plot, the largest mass killing of Jews since the Holocaust. “Yo soy Nisman” — “I am Nisman” — read many of the placards.

The terrorist group Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, are widely believed to have been behind the 1994 attack, and Nisman, who was to report to Argentine lawmakers on Tuesday, had filed a criminal complaint against President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman.

Nisman had alleged a government cover-up related to the bombing that would yield much-needed Iranian oil. Iran has denied involvement in the bombing, and Fernandez has dismissed charges of a cover-up.

Asked whether he had confidence that a government investigation could discover whether Nisman really killed himself, and whether Argentine officials abetted the terror attack, Skorka acknowledged that past investigations have been compromised.

But, Skorka continued, “you cannot cover problems from the past forever.”

Argentina is still coming to terms with its “Dirty War” of the 1970s and ’80s, in which its ruling military junta tortured and killed leftists — including many Jews, priests, nuns and lay Catholics — some of whose bodies have never been recovered. They are known as “the disappeared.”

The Roman Catholic Church in Argentina had historically enjoyed close ties with the military. Francis, who headed the Jesuit order in Argentina during the Dirty War, was publicly silent during its reign of terror and has said little about it since. But he is credited by many for quietly working behind the scenes to save dozens of lives, giving them refuge on church property and helping them leave Argentina.

Skorka said his friendship with Francis has deepened since he became pope, and the rabbi told the story of a trip he took to the Vatican in November with his grown daughter, Gabriela Skorka, who was taken by Francis’ persistent humility and the strength of the bond between the pope and her father.

After the pope and rabbi embraced, she told them: “I am proud of both of you.”