Pope expresses church's sadness for persecution of Jews

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Standing before the ashes of death camp victims in the candlelit shadows of Israel's Holocaust memorial, a visibly moved Pope John Paul II told the Jewish people on Thursday that his church is ''deeply saddened'' by Christian persecution of Jews through the centuries.

The tribute in the drafty stone halls of the Yad Vashem Memorial was both historic and personal for a pope who lost boyhood friends in the Nazi genocide. But it did not satisfy those looking for an apology from the leader of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics for the church's official silence amidst the mass killing of Europe's Jews.

The somber ceremony attended by Israeli officials, Holocaust survivors and Jewish friends from the pope's own hometown in Poland was punctuated by small, touching moments as well as grand gestures.

A Holocaust survivor greeting the pope began crying, and he gently patted her arm in consolation. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, his voice hoarse with emotion, at one point helped the frail pontiff from his chair and handed him his cane.

A letter from a Holocaust victim to her son, read out in Polish at the ceremony as John Paul followed intently, moved many to tears. In an anguished voice, a Jewish cantor sang a Prayer for the Martyrs. A police commander in uniform wept.

''I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust,'' John Paul said.

''As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place,'' the pope said.

He said he hoped good would come from the bad and that followers of the two faiths would build a new future, based on their common roots.

Afterwards, Barak said John Paul had done more than any other church leader ''to dress the bitter wounds that festered over many bitter centuries.'' The prime minister's grandparents perished in the Treblinka death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

''I think I can say, your Holiness, that your coming here today ... is a climax of this historic journey of healing,'' he said. ''This very moment holds within it 2,000 years of history.''

Still, many were frustrated at John Paul's refusal to assign blame to the Roman Catholic church hierarchy -- in particular Pius XII, the World War II-era pontiff -- for the church's failure to speak out against the Holocaust.

The pope is one of the staunchest defenders of Pius, who is being considered by the Vatican for beatification, a step before sainthood. The Vatican has said Pius did not know the extent of Hitler's purges, and John Paul has called him ''a great pope.''

Israel's chief rabbi, Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, said he was disappointed that the pontiff did not mention Pius XII, ''a pope who didn't say a word at a time when rivers of blood were streaming all over Europe.''

''Pius XII didn't like us, he was silent. At least this pope is speaking out,'' said Jacov Silverstein, 75, wearing a black-and-white-striped cap of concentration camp inmates. He was one of 20 Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem during the pope's address.

The hour at the Holocaust memorial was the emotional highlight of his groundbreaking visit to the Jewish state and sealed his legacy of unprecedented activism to reconcile Catholics and Jews. However, at an interfaith gathering hosted by the pope later Thursday, it quickly became clear that religious harmony is still difficult to attain in the troubled Middle East.

Taysir Tamimi, a senior Muslim cleric, angrily listed injustices he said have been committed by Israel against followers of his faith. He walked off the stage before the ceremonial planting of an olive tree. Lau, the chief rabbi, was heckled when he said the pope had recognized Jerusalem as Israel's eternal capital; the pope has not done so.

After listening silently to the speeches, the pope appealed to all religious leaders to look for common ground.

''Religion is not, and must not become, an excuse for violence, particularly when religious identity coincides with cultural and ethnic identity,'' he said.

The Yad Vashem visit, broadcast live on Israeli TV, was the most momentous event of the day.

John Paul walked across the memorial's Hall of Remembrance, its stone floor engraved with the names of death camps, and rekindled the eternal flame that burns in memory of the 6 million Jews who died in the Nazi genocide -- among them friends from the pope's hometown, Wadowice. Ashes from death camps are buried under a granite slab in front of the eternal flame, which serves as a symbolic grave for victims of the Holocaust whose bodies cannot be identified.

''The pope's very gesture of coming here,'' said Eli Zborowski, one of seven survivors who met the pope, ''marks a turning point for Jews and Christians. He will be well written in the history of the human race, and of the Jewish people.''

Following up the work of Pope John XXIII in the early 1960s, John Paul has frequently condemned anti-Semitism. He visited Auschwitz and other death camps and made the first recorded visit by a pope to a synagogue, in Rome in 1986. In 1994, under John Paul, the Vatican established relations with the Jewish state.

Two weeks ago, John Paul apologized for the sins of Catholics through the ages, although he did not mention the Holocaust.

Born Karol Wojtyla 79 years ago, John Paul witnessed the persecution of Jews as a young seminary student in Krakow and said time had not erased the terrible memories.

''I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished, while others survived,'' he said.

John Paul was in the fourth-day of a weeklong Holy Land tour, which he calls a personal, spiritual pilgrimage to Old and New Testament sites.

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