Pope will visit Yad Vashem, al-Aksa

Holocaust memorial firmly on Holy See's itinerary; WJC slams church for plans to attend Durban II.

Pope Benedict 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Pope Benedict XVI, who confirmed on Sunday that he was coming to Israel in May, will definitely visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, The Jerusalem Post was told on Monday. But he will not tour that part of the museum where a photograph of his predecessor Pius XII is displayed with a caption saying the wartime pope did not act to save Jews from the Holocaust. The pope will come to Israel from Jordan, said a church official involved in the planning of the visit, and will also visit Bethlehem. At each stop, in his position as both head of the Catholic church and a head of state, he will meet with local church and political leaders - notably King Abdullah of Jordan, President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. There will be major masses in Amman, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth, the official said. Unlike pope John Paul II, who did visit the Temple Mount but did not go into al-Aksa, Benedict will enter that mosque, the official said. The official said that while the dispute over Pius XII was "a serious and sensitive matter," it would be unthinkable for the pope to come to Israel without going to Yad Vashem. There were those within the Holy See who argued that Benedict could not come to "a physical place where his predecessor is presented as a criminal," he said. But while this meant it was highly unlikely that the pope would enter the room where the Pius photograph and caption were on display, if the exhibit remained unchanged, it would not prevent the pontiff's coming to Yad Vashem. Estee Ya'ari, Yad Vashem's spokeswoman, said simply that Benedict's visit would follow the same format and structure as that of John Paul II, with the focus being a memorial ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance. Benedict will not take a tour of the museum, where Pius's picture and the caption are displayed, she said, but "this is because of time issues and not connected to the caption." Pius XII, pontiff from 1939 until 1958, is blamed by Israel for not doing enough to save Jews from the Holocaust during World War II. The Yad Vashem caption says Pius did not act to save Jews from the Nazi genocide and kept a largely neutral position throughout the war, even when news of the Nazi extermination of Jews reached the Vatican. The Vatican has always claimed that Pius XII worked diplomatically to save Jews during the Holocaust, and recently put Pius on the path to sainthood. Last week, Vatican Radio said a 1943 document found in a Rome convent bolstered church contentions that Pius XII had tried to save Jews from the Nazis. It reported the discovery of a note, kept in a cloistered monastery near the Colosseum, that lists the names of 24 people who were taken in by the nuns "in accordance with Pius's desire." The note carried a November 1943 date, Vatican Radio said. In October 1943, more than 2,000 Jews were rounded up in the city's Old Ghetto neighborhood and deported to concentration camps while the Italian capital was under Nazi occupation. Only about 100 Jews survived to return to Italy. A German Jesuit who has been spearheading efforts for Pius's beatification said he had obtained the document from nuns based in the convent. The Rev. Peter Gumpel contended that the list provided "further confirmation that can be useful against those who persistently want to denigrate Pius XII and thus attack the Catholic church." Israeli officials and Jewish groups have said that as long as Vatican archives on Pius's papacy remain closed to researchers, the question of what the pontiff did or didn't do to save Jews remains unresolved. The official who spoke to the Post on Monday, however, argued that "opening the archive to non-Catholic researchers is very sensitive. It's not just information relating to the Holocaust era that is there. There are other matters, too." Last year, in a tribute to Pius, Benedict insisted the late pontiff had worked quietly behind the scenes to save as many Jews as possible. He has expressed hope that the path toward sainthood could move ahead, but also reportedly agreed to consider freezing the process until the Vatican's wartime archives are opened to researchers. The church official expressed pleasure that "a norm" was apparently being established whereby popes visit the Holy Land. John Paul II - the Polish-born Karol Wojtyla, who came to Israel in 2000 at age 79 - was the first pope since the days of the early church to enter a synagogue, was key to the Vatican's establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel in 1994, publicly apologized for the failure of many Catholics to act against the Nazis, and personally paid his respects to the victims of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem. He died in 2005. The official stressed that Benedict was coming primarily to pray. "This is a pilgrimage," he stressed, adding that there would be a heavy focus on meetings with local church leaders and members of the community, to bolster solidarity and a sense of connection. He noted that in 2000, when John Paul II visited, "there were peace hopes, and it was the millennium year" - a seemingly ideal time to come. Now, by contrast, "there is little optimism about peace, it's an 'ordinary' year and there's a global financial crisis." Yet the pope was adamant in coming at precisely so unpromising a juncture "with a message of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence and understanding." He was coming "as a signal of hope for local Christians" and "to promote better understanding between all the monotheistic religions... He is coming with every good intention toward Christians and Jews." In the context of the visit to Israel, the official said, problems relating to the granting of visas for Catholic priests, and gripes concerning limitations on family reunification would also likely be discussed. A longstanding tax dispute between Israel and the Vatican may also be raised. Negotiations between the State of Israel and Vatican officials on the issue of taxation of church properties started over a decade ago. At the core of the dispute are hundreds of millions of shekels in overdue property tax that Jerusalem municipal officials say the Vatican and an array of Christian churches in Jerusalem owe the city. According to law, properties that are used as houses of prayer are exempted from paying property tax. But the churches, which own a vast number of properties in Jerusalem, are required to pay the city property tax for buildings they own that are not used for worship, including hostels, guest houses and schools, the city says. The total amount of unpaid property tax amounts to roughly NIS 300 million, with the Latin Patriarchate the biggest offender, Jerusalem city officials have said. The Vatican is said to be willing to pay only a symbolic fee for the city services they receive. Meanwhile Monday, the president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, praised the visit as "timely" and said it gave the pontiff an "opportunity not to be missed," in view of recent controversies over the lifting of Holocaust denier Bishop Williamson's excommunication, the so-called Good Friday prayer, and the discussion of the beatification of Pius. "This important visit will be warmly welcomed by Israel and the Jewish people," he said. "Pope Benedict's visit to the memorial Yad Vashem will be very significant, in light of the controversy concerning Bishop Williamson and the Society of Saint Pius X. We also note with appreciation that the Vatican is considering opening its archives in order to allow for further research to be carried out on the role of pope Pius XII during the Holocaust." But Lauder expressed deep disappointment at the Vatican's announcement that it plans to attend the United Nations Durban Review Conference, or Durban II, next month in Geneva. "We hoped that the Vatican would join Canada, Italy and the United States and decide to stay away from Durban II. Sadly, this forum is already shaping up as a repeat of the failed 2001 conference in Durban, which, instead of combating racism, singled out Israel alone for blame," said Lauder. "The Vatican should not be a party to a forum that instead of fighting racism, would promote it." Etgar Lefkovits and AP contributed to this report.