Vatican defends wartime Pope against Jewish charges

Last updated 09:30 09/10/2008

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The Vatican has rejected charges that wartime Pope Pius XII turned a blind eye to the Holocaust as a "black legend" not backed up by history.

An editorial in the Vatican newspaper defended Pius two days after the first Jew to address a Church synod told the gathering Jews "cannot forgive and forget" Pius' silence.

The Osservatore Romano called him a "man of peace" who tried to do his best during one of the most violent periods in history. The editorial was published on the eve of commemorations to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

"He confronted the wartime tragedy like no leader of his time did. Even when faced with the monstrous persecution of the Jews (he worked) in a suffered silence which is understandable and whose aim was an efficient endeavour of charity and undeniable help," the newspaper said.

Some Jews maintain Pius did not do enough. The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the scenes to help Jews because more direct intervention would have worsened the situation.

The newspaper denounced what it called "black legend about a pope who was insensitive to the Shoah (the Hebrew word for the Holocaust) or even pro-Nazi."

It rejected such accusations, saying they were "above all inconsistent from the historical point of view, apart from being denigrating".

On Monday, the chief rabbi of Haifa, Israel, Shear-Yashuv Cohen, told Pope Benedict during a synod that Jews "cannot forgive and forget" that some major religious leaders during World War 2 did not speak out against the Holocaust. This was a clear reference to Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958.

The papacy of Pius is one of the most difficult issues in Catholic-Jewish relations. Many books have been written about it, with most defenders saying the situation would have been worse for Jews if he had spoken out forcefully against Hitler.

Last month, Benedict said Pius "spared no effort" to help Jews.

He spoke to the US-based Pave the Way Foundation, a mixed Jewish-Catholic group which prepared a 200-page compilation of documents, diplomatic cables and newspaper clippings from the period – some of them previously unpublished – showing Pius did much to help Jews during the war.

Urged by historians to open all its archives from World War 2, the Vatican says some are closed for organisational reasons but most of the significant documentation regarding Pius is open to scholars.

Last year, the Vatican's saint-making department voted in favour of a decree recognising Pius' "heroic virtues", a major hurdle in a long process toward possible sainthood that began in 1967. But Pope Benedict has so far not approved the decree.

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Some Jewish groups say the Vatican should freeze the process of beatification. Others say it is an internal Church matter.

- Reuters

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