REUTERS - Pope Benedict on Monday said at Israel's memorial to 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany that their suffering must never be denied, a message that addressed Jewish anger over a Holocaust-denying bishop.
It was not immediately clear if the pope's words, which fell short of an outright apology for lifting the excommunication of British Bishop Richard Williamson in January, would heal the worst schism between the Vatican and Jews in a half-century.
On his arrival earlier in the day, the pontiff underscored the Vatican's political divisions with Israel's right-leaning government by voicing support for a Palestinian homeland.
At the stark Yad Vashem memorial, the German-born pope said he had come to honour the memory of Jews killed in the "horrific tragedy of the Shoah", the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, which he called an atrocity that disgraced mankind.
"May the names of these victims never perish. May their suffering never be denied, belittled or forgotten," he said, in prayer-like phrasing.
The pope's comments echoed remarks he made in February on the Williamson controversy in which he told Jewish leaders "any denial or minimisation of this terrible crime is intolerable".
In the 45 years since the Second Vatican Council repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Christ's death, relations have been haunted by the Holocaust and the question of what the church did, or failed to do, about it.
They hit a low in January after the pope lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including Williamson, who denied 6 million Jews were killed.
The Vatican said it had not known enough about the British bishop's past and the church and Jewish religious leaders had hoped the issue could be closed with the visit to Yad Vashem.
Before Williamson and the other bishops can be fully readmitted into the Church, the Vatican said, they must accept the teachings of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council that urged respect for other religions.
Hitler Youth membership
Welcoming the pontiff, Israel's President Shimon Peres said: "Spiritual leaders can pave the way for political leaders. They can clear the minefields that obstruct the road to peace."
"Ties of reconciliation and understanding are now being woven between the Holy See and the Jewish people," Peres added. "Our door is open to similar efforts with the Muslim world."
Peres said the visit was "an important spiritual mission of the highest order, a mission of peace, a mission of planting seeds for tolerance and uprooting of the weeds of fanaticism".
But there was little enthusiasm among Israelis. Born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria in 1927, Pope Benedict was a member of the Hitler Youth when enrolment was compulsory.
His biographers say he was never a member of the Nazi party and his family opposed Adolf Hitler's regime.
Speaking on his arrival from Jordan, the pope condemned anti-Semitism, which he said "continues to rear its ugly head" in the world, and called for a global effort to combat it.
Reiterating Vatican policy, he also called for a "just resolution" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own, within
secure and internationally recognised borders".
According to Hebrew usage, he noted, security is something that "arises from trust and refers not just to the absence of threat but also to the sentiment of calmness and confidence".
Since taking over as Israel's prime minister on March 31, Benjamin Netanyahu has not endorsed creating a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, a U.S. and Arab priority.
The pope's remarks on the subject will echo around the region, particularly when he visits a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, where he will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
During the pope's visit to Jordan, he stressed his desire for warm relations between Christians and Muslims and tried to wipe away residual bitterness over a 2006 lecture he made, which Muslims saw as offensive.
Jordan's King Abdullah was quoted on Monday by London's Times newspaper as saying the United States was promoting a peace plan for the Middle East involving a "57-state solution" in which the entire Muslim world would recognise Israel.