Fatah demo 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The decision of the Vatican ambassador to Israel, Archbishop Antonio Franco, to retract his announced boycott of Sunday's Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony was certainly welcome. This spat, however, highlights the urgent need for religious leaders to both face the past honestly and the future with determination and unity.
Franco had said he would not attend the ceremony to remember the six million Jewish victims of Nazi genocide because of a photo caption in Yad Vashem. The caption describing Pope Pius XII reads:
"When he was elected pope, in 1939, he shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared. 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 caption states further that Pius "maintained his neutral position" and notes "his silence and absence of guidelines," with the exception of appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia toward the end of the war.
After sending a letter in protest to Yad Vashem, Franco told the Italian media, "It hurts me to go to the museum and see Pius represented in this way."
The Vatican argues that Pius saved thousands of Jews through discreet diplomacy. Rev. Peter Gumpel, who is leading the effort to declare Pius a saint, said in Rome that historians "say they find it difficult to understand how people can say that Pope Pius XII did nothing for the Jews. To present him now this way, I find it very difficult to understand."
This debate has continued for decades, including books that brand Pius as "Hitler's pope," and other books defending Pius's wartime record. In this context, Yad Vashem's call for further information would seem eminently reasonable.
In his letter responding to Franco, Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev wrote, "The evaluation of the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust poses a challenge to those who wish to seriously confront it. It is a complex issue, and we will continue to make sure that we are firmly rooted in the most updated historical truth. We would be pleased to examine any new documentation ... on this issue."
If the case for Pius is indisputable, why does the Vatican not open its archives and allow this debate to be settled, or at least advanced?
This struggle over the past, however, should not be allowed to overshadow the lessons from the Holocaust for the future.
For all its shortcomings, Christianity has been working for decades to stamp out anti-Semitism in its midst and doctrine, and has made important steps toward confronting its history. In the Muslim world, by contrast, anti-Semitism is the norm, not the exception, and is still being disseminated by prominent Muslim clerics and widely tolerated and even supported by official organizations.
A 2005 BBC-aired documentary reported, for example, that Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, a leading imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, called Jews "the scum of the human race" and "offspring of apes and pigs." He also attacked "the callers of the trinity and the cross worshipers ... those influenced by the rottenness of [Jewish] ideas."
The attendance of Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US Turki Al-Faisal at a Washington reception condemning anti-Semitism in February was a positive step. But the fact that it is considered progress for Muslims to even recognize the existence of anti-Semitism and the reality of the Holocaust shows how much work there is to be done.
The urgent task, then, is not so much for Jews and Christians to come to grips with their common past, but for both to demand that the Muslim world end its promulgation of religious hatred and prejudice. If the Holocaust teaches anything, it is that dehumanization is a natural prelude to genocide. Today's imperative for Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders is to join together to combat the perversion of religious faith and principles toward inhuman ends.