(photo credit: AP)
Pope Benedict XVI paid solemn tribute to Holocaust victims Friday, extending his "sadness, repentance and friendship" to the Jewish people as he began a three-day pilgrimage to Austria.
Braving pelting rain, the German-born pontiff joined Vienna's chief rabbi, Paul Chaim Eisenberg, in quiet prayer before an austere stone memorial honoring the 65,000 Viennese Jews who perished in Nazi death camps and others burned at the stake in the 1400s after refusing to convert.
Earlier Friday, Benedict told reporters on his flight to Austria that the poignant and highly symbolic stop at Vienna's Judenplatz, or Jewish Square, was intended to show "our sadness, our repentance and our friendship to the Jewish people."
In 1938, the city's Jewish community was one of the world's largest and most vibrant with 185,000 members. Today, there are fewer than 7,000.
Alluding to the nation's past complicity with the Nazis, President Heinz Fischer conceded in a greeting to the pope that Austria had "dark hours in its history."
Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Austria's top churchman, noted Christianity's roots in Judaism and urged his countrymen never to forget the atrocities committed against the capital's Jews.
"It is part of the tragedy of the city that here, of all places, this root was forgotten - even denied - to the point where godless will destroyed the people to whom God gives his first love," he said.
Benedict, making his seventh foreign trip in two years as pope, professed his affection for the mostly Catholic country, telling Austrians he felt "a vivid sense ... of being at home here in your midst."
"This cultural space in the heart of Europe transcends borders and brings together ideas and energies from various parts of the continent," Benedict told Fischer, Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and other dignitaries at a military welcome hastily moved inside an airport hangar because of the poor weather.
Austria borders Eastern Europe and its melting pot of Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews.