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Pope’s visit to synagogue reopens Holocaust wounds

January 17, 2010

by Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: January 17 2010

Pope Benedict became the second pope in modern times who visited Rome’s synagogue

In his first visit to Rome’s synagogue, Pope Benedict on Sunday asked for forgiveness for Christians who had fuelled anti-Semitism, but the murky history of his war-time predecessor, Pius XII, cast a shadow over a ceremony heavy with hurt and symbolism.

Pope Benedict’s short and heavily guarded journey from the Vatican across the Tiber to the imposing synagogue was only the second made by a pope in modern times, following in the steps of John Paul II in 1986.

Hopes the visit would help heal the deep wounds in the Jewish community were hit last month when the pontiff recognised the “heroic virtues” of the Nazi-era Pius XII, propelling him towards sainthood.

Only a handful returned of the more than 1,000 Jews rounded up and deported to Auschwitz by occupying German forces in Rome in October 1943. Jewish historians say Pius’s “silence” condemned them to death.

With Pope Benedict beside him in the packed synagogue, Riccardo Pacifici, lay president of Rome’s Jewish community, acknowledged his respect for those who had decided to boycott the ceremony, saying the weight of history could not be ignored.

“The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah hurt,” Mr Pacifici said. “Perhaps he could not have halted the death trains, but he could have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, to our brothers being transported to the ovens of Auschwitz.” The congregation applauded.

Riccardo di Segni, Rome’s chief rabbi, warned of the “silence of man” in the face of great evil.

Pope Benedict, 82, struck a conciliatory tone, recalling his visit to Israel last year and repeating the Vatican’s wish for forgiveness for anti-Semitic Christians. “May these wounds be healed,” he said.

But the pontiff – whose reign has been marked by a deterioration in relations with Jewish and Muslim communities – did not give ground on the Vatican’s defence of Pius XII.

Many Italian Catholics, he said, risked their lives to help Jews. “The Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way,” he added.

He also ignored Mr Pacifici’s appeal to the Vatican to open more archives on that era. The Vatican says it will in due course.

Last year Pope Benedict angered Jews and many of his own faith by lifting the excommunication of Richard Williamson, a British-born bishop who denies the extent of the Holocaust.

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