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14 May 2009

The Pilgrim Pope

Pope Benedict's visit to the Holy Land is a bold step towards healing past wounds and pushing inter-

By Mark Frazer

Israeli protocol has it that all visiting dignitaries to the Jewish state should take some time to visit Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust Museum.

It’s a profoundly moving experience, and offers a valuable insight into the predominant Israeli (and Jewish) mindset: “We will never again allow the Jewish people to be at the mercy of others, without a homeland and without a refuge.”

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has now also visited Yad Vashem, but with one slight difference.

He was subtly manoeuvred past the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ – a display at the Yad Vashem museum that comments on the apparent inaction of Pope Pius XII during World War Two – with an awkward smile and a clearing of the throat.

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Many have criticised the wartime Pope for not publicly speaking out against Nazi Germany when many believe his intervention could have saved lives.

The Vatican disputes this narrative and argues that Pius remained silent so as not to jeopardise the safety of Catholics, and to quietly protect Jewish communities where he could, including in Rome. The Vatican claims to have evidence of this, but the matter is far from clear cut, and remains contentious.

So it caused waves throughout the Jewish world when the Vatican announced that they were considering the beatification of Pope Pius XII.

This disquiet was compounded by the reinstatement of Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson into the Catholic fold. Bishop Williamson apologised for embarrassing the Pope with his comments, after much arm-twisting, but still refuses to recant.

However, in amongst all of the controversy and clumsy diplomatic manoeuvring, the Pope’s current visit to the State of Israel remains a strong statement by a pontiff who is undoubtedly genuinely committed to the causes of peace, fighting injustice and remembrance of the Holocaust.

As a German, Pope Benedict XVI has taken it upon himself to continue the invaluable work done by John Paul II before him, both with regard to the Holocaust and to Catholic-Jewish relations. He was of course, as Cardinal Ratzinger, a key advisor to his predecessor.

Upon arriving at Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, the Pope warned that antisemitism remains a serious global problem and at Yad Vashem he spoke out against all those who have “denied, belittled or forgotten” the Holocaust.

True, there have been errors of judgement; the Pope has heard the critics and is making difficult decisions based on what he believes is right. The media has been waiting with baited breath for him to speak on issues such as the Holocaust and the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Should he speak at Yad Vashem? Should he speak in front of the security barrier? Which Holy site is it appropriate for him to visit? What statements, if any, should he make on the peace process? The visit was always going to be a diplomatic minefield, but the Pope has navigated it well in order to bring a message of peace and reconciliation to Israel and to the Jewish people, as well as to the Palestinians and the Muslim world.

Pope John Paul II’s legacy may be difficult to follow, but there is no question that the Jewish community will now look to build on positive relations with the Catholic Church both in the UK and abroad, thanks, in no small part, to Pope Benedict XVI.

Mark Frazer is Public Affairs Officer for the Defence & Group Relations Division of the Board of Deputies of British Jews

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