Vatican attends Holocaust memorial

Reverses decision to boycott Yad Vashem event over depiction of Pope Pius XII.

Vatican ambassador 298.8 (photo credit: AP)
Vatican ambassador 298.8
(photo credit: AP)
In a dramatic about-face, the Vatican ambassador to the Holy Land attended the official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony Sunday night at Yad Vashem, reversing an earlier decision that threatened to upset already delicate relations between Israel and the Vatican. The planned boycott stemmed from a photo caption at the Holocaust museum referring to the silence of Pope Pius XII during World War II. "Since my action was not intended as a move to disassociate myself from the commemoration but to call attention to the manner in which the pope is presented - my aim has been achieved," Monsignor Antonio Franco said in an interview on Vatican Radio.
  • Nation to mark Holocaust Day "I have no motives to keep up the tensions, and therefore I will participate in the ceremony," he added. Yad Vashem on Sunday immediately welcomed Franco's change of heart, which was made public in the early afternoon. "We believe that the Vatican's representative's decision to attend the ceremony at Yad Vashem and identify with the memory of the victims is the right thing to do," a Yad Vashem statement read. "Yad Vashem believes that it was inappropriate to link an issue of historical research with commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust." The caption, which first appeared when the new Holocaust Museum was inaugurated at Yad Vashem in 2005, states that the pope's reaction to the murder of the Jews during the Holocaust is controversial. Franco, who took up his position in Jerusalem last year, had said his move was an effort to "attract attention" on the issue, which he said was offensive to Catholics and was a question of "human rights." The role of Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 until his death in 1958, has long been controversial. The Vatican has defended him over his silence. Yad Vashem informed Franco that it would reexamine Pius XII's conduct during the Holocaust if the Vatican opened its World War II-era archives to the museum's research staff, which the Vatican never has done. Yad Vashem said the caption accurately reflected history. "The Holocaust museum presents the historical truth on Pope Pius XII as is known to scholars today," it said in a statement. That message along with the willingness to reexamine the issue was reiterated in a letter Yad Vashem sent to Franco on Sunday. "The evaluation of the role of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust poses a challenge to those who wish to seriously confront it," Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev wrote . "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 that may come to light on this issue." Vatican Spokesperson Father Federico Lombardo said Franco's decision to participate in the ceremony was taken after receiving a letter from Yad Vashem, which showed "an openness to dialogue." The unusual open diplomatic wrangling came as the Vatican presses ahead with its plans to beatify Pius XII over the objection of Israel and Jewish groups around the world. Israel's Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority had said the planned boycott would have marked the first time in which a foreign emissary deliberately skipped the ceremony. Over the weekend, Yad Vashem had called on Franco to do some "soul-searching" over his planned boycott of official ceremony. The solemn one-hour state ceremony, which marks the start of Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, is attended by all foreign ambassadors to Israel or their representatives, as well as Israeli VIP's and Holocaust survivors. The central theme of this year's ceremony - coming at a time when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called the Holocaust a "myth" and has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map - is bearing witness. During the ceremony, six torches were lit by Holocaust survivors in memory of the six million Jewish victims. The chief rabbis recited Psalms and Kaddish. "We do not have the right to forget and we do not have the authority to forgive," Acting President Dalia Itzik said in her address. "There are many, gathered in prestigious academic institutions, whose eyes are blinded and hearts are closed by hatred for Israel," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said. "They deny the right of the Jewish people to exist in a sovereign state. They are the first to find justification for any atrocious act against the residents of Israel and to vehemently condemn any defensive action taken by the State of Israel." Former justice minister Yosef Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and chairman of the Yad Vashem Council, said Ahmadinejad was not satisfied with six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust and for him the gas chambers in Auschwitz were just the introduction. "The enlightened world preaches to us to be conciliatory for peace, but we ask, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, those who are preaching morals, what will happen if your plans go wrong? What will you say then, 'Sorry, we were wrong,'" Lapid said. "Then they will send us medical equipment, open orphanages and pray for our lost souls," he added. "If you want to understand us, think about the Holocaust because we think about it every day... We will never again take risks, we will not allow another Yad Vashem to be established," Lapid said. On Monday a two-minute siren will sound at 10 a.m. at the start of a series of daylong ceremonies. The official wreath-laying ceremony will take place just after the siren is sounded at the Warsaw Ghetto uprising memorial at Yad Vashem. The "Unto Every Person There is a Name" ceremony will follow - in which Holocaust victims' names are read out - at both the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem and the Knesset. Approximately 250,000 Holocaust survivors are thought to be living in the country. Nearly one-third of them live in poverty, recent Israeli welfare reports have found, prompting growing calls for additional government assistance. Lisa Palmieri-Billig contributed to this article from Rome.