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(photo credit: AP)
Pope Benedict XVI was welcomed with applause Sunday in a visit to Rome's Great Synagogue that he said would improve relations between Catholics and Jews, many of whom object to his moving World War II pontiff Pius XII toward sainthood.
Some critics contend Pius did not do enough to save Jews during the Holocaust. The Vatican defends him, maintaining he used behind-the-scenes diplomacy in a bid to save Jewish lives. Several prominent Jews said they would boycott the visit, but applause greeted the pope as he arrived at the synagogue in the Old Jewish Ghetto, where for hundreds of years Jews were confined under the orders of a 16th century pope.
Benedict warmly shook hands with the synagogue's retired chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, who welcomed John Paul II when the late pontiff visited the synagogue in a ground-breaking event in 1986.
Ahead of his meeting with Rome's Jewish community, the German-born Benedict said that "despite the problems and difficulties, you can breathe in a climate of great respect and dialogue among the believers of the two religions, testimony to how matured the relations are and to the common commitment to value that which unites us."
Those unifying factors were: "faith in the one God, above all, but also safeguarding life and the family, the aspiration for social justice and peace," Benedict said.
An elderly Jewish man entering the synagogue shortly before the pope's scheduled arrival said he was glad the pope was coming despite recent problems.
"Dialogue is always important, and it sets a good example," said Natan Orvieto. "But there needs to be reciprocal respect and that hasn't happened a lot lately."
Under the leadership of John Paul and Benedict, the Vatican has been seeking common ground on such conservative agendas as traditional families while forging stronger relations with other religions, including Judaism and Islam.
Before entering the synagogue, the pope was scheduled to attend a wreath-laying ceremony in front of a plaque that recalls the October 16, 1943, deportation of Jews in Rome during Nazi occupation. Another stop was planned at another memorial, which recalls the 1982 attack on the synagogue by Palestinian terrorists that killed a 2-year-old Jewish boy.
Hundreds of police on Saturday enforced strict security around the synagogue along the boulevard lining the Tiber. Officers guided dogs trained to sniff out explosives.
As part of security ahead of the visit, motorists and strollers were banned from passing near the synagogue and the cobblestone streets were cordoned off. The neighborhood is the sentimental heart for Rome's 12,000-strong Jewish community, although many of them live elsewhere in the capital.
Benedict has visited synagogues in Cologne, Germany, and in New York during papal pilgrimages since he became pontiff in 2005.