ROME - An official who caused a storm in the Jewish world by praising Pope Pius XII for saving Jews during World War Two backtracked on Sunday, saying his judgment was "historically premature."
The comments made last Thursday by Mordechay Lewy, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, were some of the warmest ever made by a Jewish official about Pius. Most have been very critical of his record.
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In an indication of how sensitive the subject of Pius is among Jews, Lewy was quickly assailed by some Jewish groups, including Holocaust survivors.
In a statement issued in what appeared to be an attempt to calm the dispute within the world Jewish community, Lewy said his comments were "embedded in a larger historical context."
"Given the fact that this context is still under the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature," Lewy said.
The question of what Pius did or did not do to help Jews has tormented Catholic-Jewish relations for decades and it is very rare for a leading Jewish or Israeli official to praise Pius.
Many Jews accuse Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the scenes because speaking out would have led to Nazi reprisals against Catholics and Jews in Europe.
Lewy, speaking at a ceremony to honor an Italian priest who helped Jews, had said Catholic convents and monasteries opened their doors to save Jews in the days following a Nazi sweep of Rome's Ghetto on Oct. 16, 1943.
In his speech on Thursday night, Lewy said: "There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on."
"So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true," he said.
Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, called Lewy's comments unsustainable.
"For any ambassador to make such specious comments is morally wrong. For the Israeli envoy to do so is particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors who suffered grievously because of Pius's silence," Steinberg said in a statement.
Steinberg said Lewy had "disgracefully conflated the praiseworthy actions of elements in the Catholic Church to rescue Jews with the glaring failure of Pope Pius to do so."
When Pope Benedict visited Rome's synagogue last year, the president of the capital's Jewish community told him that Pius's "silence before the Holocaust" still hurt Jews because more should have been done.
Many Jews responded angrily last year when the pope said in a book that Pius was "one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else."
Jews have asked that a process that could lead to Pius becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church be frozen until all the Vatican archives from the period have been opened and studied.