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Vatican spars with Israeli Holocaust memorial

AP PhotoPart of a display showing wartime Pope Pius XII is seen in the museum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
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JERUSALEM ” The Vatican and Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial got into a public spat Thursday over the wartime conduct of Pope Pius XII during the Nazi genocide, threatening to upset fragile relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish state.

Separately, church officials announced new developments Thursday in the Vatican’s case to make Pius a saint. A massive dossier on Pius’ virtues ” some six volumes of 3,000 pages ” was handed over to a panel of bishops and cardinals earlier this month to study, they said.

At issue in the Yad Vashem-Vatican dispute is a photograph of Pius in Yad Vashem’s museum in Jerusalem with the caption: “Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the pope did not protest,” refusing to sign a 1942 Allied condemnation of the massacre of Jews during World War II.



Pius “maintained his neutral position” with two exceptions, the caption reads, criticizing “his silence and absence of guidelines.” The exceptions were appeals to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia toward the end of the war, the caption says.

The Vatican’s ambassador to Israel, Monsignor Antonio Franco, confirmed Thursday that he would not attend Yad Vashem’s annual memorial service for Holocaust victims next week because of the Pius photograph.



“I don’t intend to go to Yad Vashem if things remain the way they do,” he said.

The memorial service is traditionally attended by all foreign ambassadors to Israel or their representatives. Yad Vashem said this would mark the first case in which a foreign emissary deliberately skipped the ceremony.

Yad Vashem is “shocked and disappointed” by Franco’s decision, said spokeswoman Iris Rosenberg.



Foreign Ministry spokesman Yariv Ovadia said the Holocaust “was one of the most traumatic events to befall the Jewish people … and it is their decision whether they want to pay respect to the victims or not.”

The disputed photo caption first appeared in 2005, when Yad Vashem opened its new museum. Shortly after, the previous Vatican ambassador asked that the caption

be changed.

Yad Vashem has not done so, insisting its research on the pope’s role was accurate.

Yad Vashem said it would be ready to re-examine Pius XII’s conduct during the Holocaust if the Vatican opened its World War II-era archives to the museum’s research staff and new material emerged. Despite frequent requests from Holocaust researchers, the Vatican has denied access to major parts of its archives, including wartime papers.

Rosenberg said the museum “would continue to present the historical truth on Pius XII as it is known to scholars today.”

The Vatican has struggled to defend its wartime pope, insisting Pius spearheaded discreet diplomacy that saved thousands of Jews.

Franco said in his letter to Yad Vashem that he found the Pius XII caption offensive to Catholics.

“I respect the memory of the martyrs of the Holocaust but also the memory of the pope,” he said. “The right of one does not infringe on the right of the other.”

In Rome, the Rev. Peter Gumpel, who is spearheading Pius’ sainthood cause, said he was “shocked” by Yad Vashem’s portrayal of Pius.

He maintained 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.”

Gumpel said he hoped the panel of bishops and cardinals would decide on Pius’ case this year. If the clerics approve the dossier, they will pass their recommendations on to Pope Benedict XVI, who could then sign a decree on Pius’ virtues, the first major step toward possible beatification. The Vatican would then have to confirm a miracle attributed to Pius’ intercession for him to be beatified, and a second miracle for him to be canonized.

Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1994, after hundreds of years of painful relations between Catholicism and Judaism.

Rabbi David Rosen, who helped negotiate the 1994 agreement, said the relationship remains strong, despite Israel’s failure to keep key promises to the Vatican on issues including taxation.

Rosen, in charge of interfaith relations at the American Jewish Committee, said the dispute over the pope should have been resolved quietly, not in public.

“It is certainly very regrettable and will leave a bad taste on both sides,” he said, adding that he did not expect lasting damage to the relationship.


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