The Vatican ambassador to the Holy Land said Thursday that he will not attend the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day state ceremony at Yad Vashem in protest over a caption at the museum that states that Pope Pius XII did not protest the Nazis' mass murder of Jews during World War II.
The bitter public dispute, which threatens to upset the fragile relations between the Catholic Church and Israel, has erupted as the Vatican presses ahead with longstanding plans to make Pius a saint.
"I will attend any ceremony on the victims of World War II, but I do not feel at ease at Yad Vashem when the pope is presented in this way," Monsignor Antonio Franco said in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post. Therefore, if nothing was done to change the caption, he added, he would "not feel comfortable" coming to the ceremony.
Franco said his unprecedented decision not to attend the Sunday evening official state ceremony was a "personal" one and was made after museum officials did not respond to a request last year to change the caption.
The caption, which first appeared when the new Holocaust museum was inaugurated at Yad Vashem in 2005, states that the pope maintained neutrality throughout the war and stayed silent even when news of the mass murder of Jews reached the Vatican.
In a statement, Yad Vashem voiced "shock and disappointment" that the Vatican's delegate to Israel has chosen not to respect the memory of the Holocaust by refusing to participate in the official ceremony in which the State of Israel and the Jewish people join in memory of the victims, saying that the move contradicts the pope's statement during his visit to Yad Vashem regarding the importance of remembering the Holocaust and its victims.
"It is inconceivable to use diplomatic pressures on an issue of historical research," the statement read.
The official state ceremony is attended by all foreign ambassadors to Israel or their representatives, as well as Israeli VIPs from the prime minister on down, and Holocaust survivors.
Yad Vashem said this would mark the first time in which a foreign emissary deliberately skipped the ceremony.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yariv Ovadia said the Holocaust "was one of the most traumatic events to befall the Jewish people... and it is their [Vatican's] decision whether they want to pay respect to the victims or not."
The Vatican ambassador, who took up his position in Jerusalem last year, said that his move was an effort to "attract attention" on the issue, which he said was offensive to Catholics, and was a question of "human rights."
The role of the Holocaust-era pope, who reigned from 1939 until his death in 1958, has long been controversial, and the Vatican has struggled to defend him over his silence during the mass murder of six million Jews.
"In 1933, when he was secretary of the Vatican State, he was active in obtaining a Concordat with the German regime to preserve the Church's rights in Germany, even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist regime," the Yad Vashem caption reads.
"When he was elected pope in 1939, he shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared," it continues. "Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the pope did not protest either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the pope did not intervene.
"The pope maintained his neutral position throughout the war, with the exception of appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia toward its end. His silence and the absence of guidelines obliged churchmen throughout Europe to decide on their own how to react."
The representative of the Holy See said his previous attempts to have the caption changed had failed. "You can guess that we have tried, and not succeeded," he said in the interview.
The Vatican has always claimed that Pius XII worked diplomatically to save Jews during the Holocaust.
Yad Vashem informed the Vatican representative that it would readily re-examine Pius XII's conduct during the Holocaust if the Vatican opened its World War II-era archives to the museum's research staff - which the Vatican never did - and said the caption accurately reflected history.
"The Holocaust museum presents the historical truth on Pope Pius XII as is known to scholars today," Yad Vashem said.
Franco said the issue of the archives was not one that could be discussed at this moment, and that the issue involved Vatican rules.
The open diplomatic wrangling comes as the Vatican presses ahead with its plans to beatify the wartime pope over the objections of the State of Israel and Jewish groups around the world.
"The Vatican wants to beatify Pope Pius XII at any price, and therefore they need to act against any opposition to this move," said Dr. Itzhak Minerbi, a leading expert on Catholic-Jewish relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Minerbi added that the "neutral" picture caption at Yad Vashem was "the very minimum" that could have been said about the wartime pope in a Holocaust museum in the State of Israel. "They looked for an excuse and found it in the caption which has been up for over a year and a half," he said.
The dispute also comes amidst the failure of recent negotiations between Israel and the Vatican to resolve a disagreement over the fiscal status of the Catholic Church in Israel regarding taxation of church properties.
Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1994.