Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pope's Speech Receives Tepid Jewish Response

JERUSALEM — Pope Benedict XVI, trying to quell Jewish anger over a Holocaust-denying bishop, bowed in silence Monday at Israel's memorial to the Jews slaughtered by the Nazis in World War II and then declared that their suffering must "never be denied, belittled or forgotten."

"They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names," the Roman Catholic leader said in a quivering voice before shaking the hands of six Holocaust survivors at a haunting ceremony in the darkened Hall of Remembrance.

"These are indelibly etched in the hearts of their loved ones, their surviving fellow prisoners, and all those determined never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again."

Jewish leaders gave the speech a tepid response, calling it a welcome affirmation of historical memory that nonetheless avoided questions of responsibility for the Holocaust or reflections on the pope's own German origin and his involuntary service in the Hitler Youth.

Some faulted him for not acknowledging wartime Pope Pius XII's public silence on the extermination of 6 million European Jews.

Benedict's fence-mending effort came on the first day of a five-day visit to Israel and the West Bank, part of a Holy Land pilgrimage aimed at contributing to Middle East peace and setting his billion-member church's relations with Jews and Muslims on a new path.

Rather than tread softly with his Israeli hosts, Benedict reaffirmed the Vatican's long-standing support for an independent Palestinian homeland alongside Israel, putting himself at odds with the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who pointedly has resisted promising the Palestinians a state.

Speaking in Netanyahu's presence minutes after arriving from Jordan, he said the "hopes of countless men, women and children for a more secure and stable future" depend on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Israeli officials played down the possibility of a rift, saying the pope's visit was not political. Benedict's appeal, however, added to international pressure on Netanyahu, who is expected to hear a similar message from President Barack Obama when he visits the White House next week.

Benedict got a close look at the region's explosive tension late in the day when Taysir Tamimi, a Palestinian cleric, commandeered the microphone at an interfaith gathering and gave an unscheduled speech lashing out at Israel's recent military assault in Gaza and its occupation of the West Bank.