Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, who caused a storm in the Jewish world by praising Pope Pius XII for saving Jews during World War II, backtracked on Sunday, saying his judgement was “historically premature.”

A senior researcher of Nazi war crimes, however, fears that despite the retraction, damage might have already been done.

The comments last Thursday by Ambassador Mordechay Lewy were some of the warmest ever made by a Jewish official about Pius. Most have been very critical of his record.

Lewy was quickly assailed by some Jewish groups, including Holocaust survivors.

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,” he said.

But Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem and researcher of Nazi war crimes, expressed on Sunday his disappointment at Lewy’s initial remarks, and the fear that “what he said will be used by those with other agendas,” despite Sunday’s retraction.

“The comments made by Lewy were particularly unfortunate, given the fact that the historical record regarding Pious’s activities and attitudes toward the persecution and mass murder of European Jewry during the Holocaust has still not been fully clarified, and there is a strong basis to believe that his record leaves much to be desired,” Zuroff told The Jerusalem Post.

“His failure to openly and unequivocally speak out against the mass murder of the Jews remains a glaring problem in the attitude of the Vatican toward the Holocaust,” Zuroff said of Pius. “For this reason and others, Jewish organizations and other groups have justifiably asked that the process of turning him into a saint be halted until all documentation regarding his role during the Holocaust will be made available to researchers.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor didn't wish to comment on Lewy’s remarks, but used the opportunity to stress the importance of the Vatican opening its archives in order to reveal the truth about the Holocaust- era pope.

“It is the known position of many among Jewish communities and in israel that Pius remained silent, when a strong moral voice needed to be raised,” he said. “His historical role, however, must be determined by historians who need free and full access to relevant archives. We reiterate our call to the Vatican to allow such access to historians, so as to enable them to carry out their work and bring to light the historical truth.”

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 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 German 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 October 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, had 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.

When Pope Benedict visited the Great Synagogue of Rome last year, the president of the city’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 Benedict said in a book that Pius was “one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else.”

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