Pope Francis will visit Auschwitz during a trip to Poland later this year, making him the third head of the Catholic Church to tour the German death camp, the Vatican announced on Saturday.Francis, according to a draft itinerary published by Vatican Radio, will spend part of July 29, the third day of a five-day trip timed to coincide with the Church’s World Youth Day, at the site where 1.1 million Jews and 70,000 gentile Poles, among others, were exterminated.The pope will be in the southern Polish city of Krakow in July for an international jamboree of Catholic youth. Auschwitz, which is the German name for the Polish town of Oswiecim where the camp is located, is about 65 km. from Krakow.“It will be the first visit of a non-European pope to Auschwitz, signaling the importance of the memory of Auschwitz not only for Europeans, but to the global Catholic Church,” said Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the president of the Conference of European Rabbis.Both of Francis’s predecessors, Pope Benedict, a German, and Pope John Paul, a Pole, visited Auschwitz during their pontificates.The current pontiff, who hails from Argentina, visited Rome’s Great Synagogue on January 17 and said the Holocaust should remind everyone of the need for “maximum vigilance” in the defense of human rights.
(Pope Francis. Credit: Reuters)Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel branch, said: “Any papal visit to a Holocaust memorial, or a Nazi mass murder site, or a death camp, but especially to Auschwitz, the largest of them all, is an opportunity to acknowledge and apologize for the highly significant role played by centuries of Christian, and particularly Catholic, anti-Semitism in paving the way for the Holocaust.“The most dramatic gesture that the pope could make during such a visit would be to announce the opening of the Vatican Archives for the years of World War II and its immediate aftermath,” Zuroff continued, “so that historians will finally be able to determine exactly when information on the mass murder of European Jewry reached Pope Pius XII, and what was its scope, and whether the pope was aware and supported the extensive postwar assistance by Catholic priests to notorious Nazi war criminals to facilitate their escape from justice.”In December, the Church under Francis issued a landmark document asserting that Catholics should not try to convert Jews and should work with them to fight anti-Semitism.This new stance became policy shortly after the Polish Church leadership declared anti-Semitism a sin, winning strong praise from the country’s chief rabbi.Speaking at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem two years ago, Francis compared the Holocaust to paganism and expressed shame in “what man, created in [God’s] own image and likeness, was capable of doing.” Francis further beseeched God to “grant us the grace to be ashamed of what we men have done.” He added that the Nazi genocide was “massive idolatry” that must never happen again.Reuters contributed to this report.