Controversy hits pope's synagogue visit

Both sides fear demonstrations, insist they won't let tensions mar Benedict's visit to Rome's main shul.

January 17, 2010 19:20
2 minute read.

Pope Benedict XVI . (photo credit: AP)

Pope Benedict XVI's planned visit to Rome's Great synagogue on Sunday has sharply divided Italian Jews, with some angered by his moves to push World War II Pope Pius XII toward sainthood.

Some Jews and historians have accused Pius of not doing enough to stop the Holocaust.

A top rabbi and at least one other prominent community member have announced they will not attend the synagogue visit in protest. And the tension, which comes on the heels of other mishaps in Jewish-Catholic relations, has raised fears of demonstrations, although both sides insist they will not let the event be marred by controversy.

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Jewish leaders from around the world have traveled to Rome for the German-born Benedict's third visit to a synagogue as pope after seeing ones in Cologne, Germany, and New York.

He will be following in the steps of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who became the first pontiff to set foot in a synagogue when he visited the monumental synagogue in Rome near the Tiber River in 1986.

"It will be a meeting of peace, friendship and mutual respect," said Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni. "But above all it will be an example of how to coexist even if we have differences."

Cardinal Walter Kasper, the top Vatican official in charge of relations with Jews, said "problems and difficulties will be open until the last day of history," but "the visit will not speak about the problems, but about what we have in common."

Last month, Benedict sparked outrage among some Jewish groups by signing a decree on Pius' heroic virtues, paving the way for him to be beatified once a miracle attributed to Pius' intercession is confirmed. Beatification is the last formal step before possible sainthood.

Some Jews and historians have argued that Pius, pope from 1939-1958, was largely silent on the Holocaust and should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.

Among the victims were more than 1,000 Roman Jews who were deported in 1943 from the old Ghetto neighborhood by the synagogue, across the river from the Vatican.

Piero Terracina, one of about a dozen survivors of the deportation, said he would not attend Benedict's visit.

"I am convinced that if that pope had come out, had made a single gesture, the Roman Jews would not have been deported, but that didn't happen," Terracina was quoted as saying by the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews and that speaking out more forcefully would have resulted in even more deaths.

Kasper, speaking to reporters this week, reiterated the Vatican's position that the beatification was an "internal question of the Church" and had to do with the "spiritual judgment" of Pius, not his historical role.

Before entering the synagogue, the German-born Benedict is expected to pause in the adjacent square where the Jews were rounded up for deportation.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier, who hosted Benedict's New York synagogue visit in 2008, said he respects those made uncomfortable by the beatification moves, but told The Associated Press that "one should not paralyzed by the past, one has to move on."

Other disputes that have strained Jewish-Catholic relations include Benedict's rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop last year and his 2007 decision to revive the old Latin Mass, which includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews.

Schneier, a Holocaust survivor who converses in German with Benedict, noted that in each case the pope and the Vatican had sought to issue clarifications or correct mistakes, showing that Benedict was acting in good faith.

"I don't think the pope would deliberately bring about missteps and then find himself correcting them," Schneier said.

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