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In an unprecedented event, the Knesset on Tuesday commemorated Pope John XXIII, who helped save thousands of Jews from the Holocaust and initiated a process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people.
Born in 1881, John XXIII, whose given name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, served as the head of the Catholic Church from 1958 until his death in 1963.
Last month, Pope Francis declared him a saint along with Pope John Paul II.
In 1934, Roncalli, who was then an archbishop, was appointed as apostolic delegate to Turkey and Greece, a position he continued to hold during World War II. While serving in Istanbul, he distributed documents and papers to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis and seeking to make their way to Mandatory Palestine.
Roncalli sent thousands of such documents to the Vatican’s ambassador in Budapest, Angelo Ratti, who was working with diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and others to save Jews from the Holocaust.
Roncalli’s efforts during the war are believed to have helped save thousands of Jews from the Nazi death camps.
After being elected pope in 1958, he laid the groundwork for the Nostra Aetate declaration of 1965.
Approved after his death, the declaration repudiated ancient charges by the Catholic Church against the Jewish people, particularly the church’s position that the Jews were cursed and guilty of Jesus’s death.
Five years ago, numerous historians, authors and other public figures in Israel called on the state to recognize Roncalli for his efforts to save Jews during the Holocaust and his work to change Church doctrine regarding the Jewish people.
Speaking at the Knesset on Tuesday, former immigration and absorption minister Yair Tzeven, who helped initiate the day’s events, praised Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein for backing the recognition of the pope.
“There has not been an event like today’s in the history of the Knesset, an event which is so important to our relations with the Christian and Catholic world,” said Tzeven. “John XXIII should serve as an example for all men of the need to bring together peoples of different races, faiths and beliefs.”
Edelstein opened the session in the plenum and recalled the pope’s efforts during the Holocaust.
“Pope John XXIII was known as a humanist, a sensitive man and someone who helped save Jews during his service as a papal emissary in Turkey,” he said.
“Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, the grandfather of opposition leader Isaac Herzog, recognized John XXIII as an exceptional person who served as a contact person for the various rescue operations of Jews throughout Europe [during the Holocaust],” he continued.
Isaac Herzog took to the Knesset podium after Edelstein’s words and recalled his grandfather’s meetings with Roncalli.
“When the news from Europe first reached my grandfather, he did everything to save Jews,” said Herzog. “As part of these efforts, he met many times with Roncalli and stated that at these meetings the Archbishop wept. John XXIII made tremendous efforts to save Jews, and because of him thousands of Jews were indeed saved.”
He noted that “this special person served just five years as pope. He took up the post at age 77 and initiated a massive revolution, which established that Judaism was the older brother to Christianity, and as such, removed all negative references [to the Jews] in the Christian liturgy.
He convened the Second Vatican Council and passed revolutionary decisions in relation to the Jews. He helped the Jewish people in every way through a deep feeling of responsibility.
He was not afraid of taking responsibility, unlike the pope at the time of the Holocaust.”