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Pope's tribute to Nazi-era pontiff opens old wounds with Israel

A rekindled controversy over the Nazi-era pontiff is clouding prospects for a possible visit to Israel by Pope Benedict XVI.

TEL AVIV // A rekindled controversy over the Nazi-era pontiff is clouding prospects for a possible visit to Israel by Pope Benedict XVI. The row was sparked last month, when Pope Benedict paid tribute to Pius XII at a mass marking the 50th anniversary of his death and announced he would like to have his predecessor beatified, a move that would put him on the path to sainthood. Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, has been the subject of debate for decades amid criticism from many Jewish groups that he failed to speak out during the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the Second World War.

In a possible escalation of the conflict, Isaac Herzog, Israel's social affairs minister and also its representative for relations with Christian communities, said such a plan would be "unacceptable". "Throughout the Holocaust, those in the Vatican knew well what was happening in Europe, and there is no testimony for any step taken by the pope, as obligated by the stature of the Holy See," Mr Herzog said. "The attempt to turn him into a saint is an exploitation of forgetfulness and a lack of awareness. Instead of acting in accordance with the biblical verse, 'thou shalt not stand against the blood of thy neighbour', the pope kept silent and maybe even worse than that."

The dispute has cast a shadow on Israel's long-standing invitation to the pope for a visit. The last papal visit was in March 2000, when Pope John Paul II arrived for a historic five-day pilgrimage to Christian sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and the West Bank town of Bethlehem. Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in the early 1990s, but unresolved issues, including the status of expropriated church property and permits for Arab Christian clergy travelling to and around the West Bank may have hampered another visit so far.

The debate has sparked uproar in Israel. This week, a website called Yalla Kadima, run by members of Israel's ruling Kadima Party, ran a photo montage that showed Pius XII with a Nazi swastika displayed on his chest. One of the site's owners told Israel Radio the image aimed at "protesting against the Vatican role during the Nazi genocide" amid "shocking" support by Pope Benedict for the beatification of the wartime pontiff.

The montage was immediately condemned by Tzipi Livni, the new Kadima leader, who asked for the removal of the image. Her aide said the Kadima website is unrelated to the official site. The Vatican has attempted to abate the controversy. While some Vatican officials are pressing Pope Benedict to take the next step towards canonising Pius, a Vatican spokesman has said the current pope is holding off on the beatification process for "absorption and reflection".

Still, the German-born Benedict has defended Pius. Last month, he said his predecessor worked "courageously, secretly and silently" during the war because that was the only way "to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews". According to Pope Benedict, Pius rescued thousands by ordering Italian churches and convents to take in Jews and by issuing them false passports to enable them to escape.

That claim is countered by many Jewish groups. Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, exhibits a black-and-white photo of Pius in a hall illustrating the world's response to the Holocaust, and its caption says that when he was elected pope in 1939, Pius shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism his predecessor had prepared. In Dec 1942 he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of Jews and did not intervene when Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz.

This month, a Vatican spokesman urged Yad Vashem to conduct a "new, objective and in-depth review" of the caption. While saying that a visit to Israel is not currently being planned, the spokesman denied assertions the exhibit would hinder one, even after a Catholic official interviewed by newswires last weekend called the caption flap the "the most burning" reason why Pope Benedict has not visited Israel.

Yad Vashem, joining calls by other Jewish groups and historians, urged the Vatican to open the archives of Pius's papacy, which have never been accessible to researchers. Despite the controversy, Israel this week renewed an invitation to the pope to visit the Holy Land. Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, on Sunday stood by Israel's criticism of Pius but said the spat should not be a barrier to a visit.

vbekker@thenational.ae