Pope honors Holocaust victims at Jerusalem memorial

Pope Benedict XVI, trying to quell Jewish anger over a Holocaust-denying bishop, bowed in silence Monday at Israel’s memorial to Jews exterminated during World War II and 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 clasping the hands of six Holocaust survivors at a haunting ceremony in the 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.

“As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts,” he added.

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 delving explicitly into the issue that has strained the Vatican’s ties with Jews: his decision to lift the excommunication of an English bishop, Richard Williamson, who denies the scope of the Nazi slaughter of 6 million European Jews.

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

Rather than tread softly with his Israeli hosts, Benedict reaffirmed the Vatican’s support for an independent Palestinian homeland alongside Israel, putting himself at odds with the new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who 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 a peace agreement.

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

Benedict got a sample of the region’s explosive tension Monday night. A Palestinian Muslim cleric, Taysir Tamimi, seized the microphone at an interfaith gathering and gave an unscheduled speech lashing out at Israel’s recent military assault in the Gaza Strip and its occupation of the West Bank.

“Your Holiness,” he said, addressing the pope, “I call on you in the name of the one God to condemn these crimes.”

Benedict appeared to understand the tone of the six-minute speech in Arabic, if not the words, but did not react. Tamimi defied efforts to cut him off and, when he was finished, shook the pope’s hand and left the podium. He won scattered applause from some of the assembled clerics -- Muslim, Christian and Jewish participants in a dialogue forum.


Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi called the speech “a direct negation of what a dialogue should be.” Israel’s chief rabbinate said it would boycott the forum until the Palestinians barred Tamimi.

On the whole, the 82-year-old pope received a warm welcome in Jerusalem. With 30,000 police on duty, Israel mounted “Operation White Robe,” its largest security operation since Pope John Paul II visited in 2000.

“In you we see a promoter of peace, a great spiritual leader,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres, who gave Benedict a 300,000-word Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible inscribed on a tiny silicon particle, using nanotechnology.

“I don’t think you have one of these at the Vatican,” quipped the 85-year-old president.


Benedict has yet to match the drama of John Paul’s Holy Land pilgrimage, the first by a pope to recognize the state of Israel or visit sites sacred to Islam.

The contrast was evident at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. There, nine years ago, the charismatic John Paul sealed his legacy as a crusader against anti-Semitism with a riveting lament.

Benedict’s 40-minute evening visit was an abbreviated replay of that ceremony. He pulled a lever that intensified the eternal flame and bowed in silence by a wreath laid over Jewish ashes.

But his address, read from an English-language text, was delivered in a monotone and struck some listeners for what it omitted.


“It was a very beautiful and important speech, but there was a sense of missed opportunity,” said Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a child survivor of the Holocaust who is chairman of Yad Vashem’s board of directors. “There was no mention of the Germans or the Nazis. . . . I did not hear a personal tone of grief and pain. And certainly no apology.”

Rabbi David Rosen, head of interfaith relations at the American Jewish Committee, said: “It’s disappointing there was no reference in his words of any connection between the derogatory attitudes that prevailed for most of history on the part of the Catholic Church toward the Jewish people and the particular tragic event that the Holocaust memorial records.”

Other Jewish leaders said they were pleased with Benedict’s messages, which included a forceful condemnation in his midday arrival speech of modern-day anti-Semitism in many parts of the world.

Benedict avoided mention of Bishop Williamson, and Vatican officials said they hoped the pope’s statement against Holocaust denial would put the issue to rest. Benedict has explained that lifting the excommunication, an effort to end a schism with Catholic traditionalists, does not allow Williamson to resume his duties.