Pope, In Israel, Confronts Dark History of Germany

By: AP
By: AP

JERUSALEM -- Pope Benedict XVI confronted the dark history of his native Germany on the first day of his visit to Israel on Monday, shaking the hands of six Holocaust survivors and saying victims of the genocide "lost their lives but they will never lose their names."

Benedict's attempts to ease tensions with Jews after his recent decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust denying bishop appeared to enjoy only partial success. The top two officials at Israel's Holocaust memorial faulted the pope for not apologizing nor using the words "murder" or "Nazis" during a speech at the site.

Nor did the pope make any discernible progress in resolving long-standing differences between the Vatican and Israel over whether the wartime pontiff, Pius XII, did enough to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Still, the pope has seldom been as emotional as he was Monday when he laid a wreath and rekindled the "eternal flame" at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

His voice and hands quivering, the 82-year-old pontiff spoke eloquently of those who perished.

"I can only imagine the joyful expectation of their parents as they anxiously awaited the birth of their children. What name shall we give this child? What is to become of him or her? Who could have imagined that they would be condemned to such a deplorable fate."

"As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts," he said.

The second official papal visit to Israel won't likely replicate the high drama of the first one nine years ago, when Benedict's predecessor John Paul II left a handwritten note at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, apologizing for Christian anti-Semitism.

Benedict did however receive an extraordinarily warm welcome replete with red carpets, a choir, children waving flags and red carnations, and a new strain of wheat named after Benedict that was presented to him by Israel's Nobel peace-prize winning president, Shimon Peres.

"In you we see a promoter of peace, a great spiritual leader," said Peres, who also gave Benedict a 300,000-word Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible inscribed on a tiny silicon particle, using nanotechnology.

"I don't think you have one of these at the Vatican," Peres quipped.

Soothing tensions with Jews was clearly at the top of Benedict's agenda. But a noteworthy comment upon his arrival at the airport calling for an independent Palestinian homeland alongside Israel had the potential to put him at odds with Israel's new hardline government.

Benedict said both Israelis and Palestinians should "live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood nearby as Benedict spoke those words, and Israeli officials later tried to play down the possibility of a rift, saying the purpose of the pope's visit was not political. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said the pope was voicing a long-standing position shared by the U.S. and European countries.

However, the region's politics intruded shortly after the pope's arrival when a Palestinian cleric, Taysir Tamimi, commandeered the microphone at an interfaith gathering and gave an unscheduled speech slamming Israel's recent war in Gaza and its occupation of the West Bank.

The incident provided some drama in what was otherwise a highly scripted day. Tamimi, the head of the Islamic courts in the West Bank and Gaza, ignored attempts by a Christian clergyman to persuade him to leave the podium. Some in the crowd applauded while others appeared visibly uncomfortable. The pope did not visibly react.

The Vatican then issued a condemnation, saying in a statement that "this intervention was a direct negation of what dialogue should be."

Although Benedict enjoyed a reputation as being a promoter of good relations with Jews before becoming pope, his personal history and a perceived insensitivity to Jewish sensibilities since assuming the papacy has caused unease in Israel.

Benedict served in the Hitler Youth corps as a young man in Germany and then in the army before deserting near the end of the war. Benedict says he was coerced.

The pope outraged Jews earlier this year when he revoked the excommunication of a British bishop who denies the Holocaust, although Benedict later explained that he had been unaware of the bishop's history. Ties were further strained when a senior Vatican official said during Israel's recent military campaign in Gaza that the territory resembled a "big concentration camp."

But the biggest point of contention between Catholics and Jews remains the role of Pius XII during World War II. Benedict has called him a "great churchman" and supports efforts to make him a saint despite Jewish concerns about his wartime conduct.

At Yad Vashem, Benedict did not visit the main part of the museum, where a photo caption says Pius did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position."

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of Yad Vashem's board of directors and a former chief rabbi of Israel, called Benedict's speech at the memorial important but said he also found it lacking.

"There is a clear difference between 'killed' and 'murdered.' There is a difference between saying millions in the Holocaust and saying six million. The word six was not said," Lau, himself a Holocaust survivor, told Israel TV. "There was certainly no apology here."

Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem's chairman, also praised the speech in general terms but said two of his expectations had not been met: The pope did not mention anti-Semitism or explicitly say who perpetrated the Holocaust. "He didn't mention Nazis or German Nazis or collaborators," Shalev said.

But Edward Mosberg, one of the survivors who met the pope, said he was satisfied.

"This was very important," Mosberg said.

Benedict is using a weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land to reach out to both Muslims and Jews. He spent three days in neighboring Jordan before arriving in Israel.

Benedict angered many in the Muslim world three years ago when he quoted a medieval text that characterized some of Islam's Prophet Muhammad's teachings as "evil and inhuman," particularly "his command to spread by the sword the faith." He later expressed regret that his comments offended Muslims.

Before leaving Jordan, he said he had a "deep respect" for Islam.

But Muslims, like Jews, had decidedly mixed reactions to Benedict on Monday.

During his visit to the presidential residence in Jerusalem, the pope met the parents of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Hamas militants three years ago and remains in captivity in the Gaza Strip.

In Gaza, Palestinians expressed anger that Benedict met the family of the captive Israeli, but did not meet with relatives of any of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners imprisoned in Israel.

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Associated Press Writers Victor L. Simpson and Aron Heller contributed to this report.

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