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