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Middle east

Vatican plays down Pope's WWII past after Israeli criticism

©

Video by Christopher MOORE

Latest update : 2009-05-15

Faced with growing criticism in Israel, a Vatican spokesman at first flatly denied the pontiff had been a Hitler Youth member, before revising his statement. The Pope mentioned his "involuntary" enrollment in the Nazi youth movement in a 1996 book.

Reuters - The Vatican had to play down Pope Benedict's teenage membership of the Hitler Youth on Tuesday as Israeli disappointment at a lack of emotion in his remarks on the Holocaust dogged his tour of the Holy Land.

The speaker of the Knesset, echoing many of his compatriots, accused the German-born pope of showing detachment on Monday from Jewish suffering under the Nazis. He referred to Benedict as "a German who joined the Hitler Youth and ... Hitler's army".

The Vatican spokesman at first flatly denied that Benedict, 82, was ever in the Nazi youth movement. But when reporters noted the pope himself spoke of his membership in a 1996 book, he revised the statement to say: "He was enrolled involuntarily into the Hitler Youth but he had no active participation."

The pontiff, described by one Israeli newspaper columnist as coming across as "restrained, almost cold" during his visit to Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, prayed at Judaism's Western Wall on Tuesday and visited Islam's Dome of the Rock -- holy sites at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He later held an open-air mass under the walls of the Old City in the Garden of Gethsemane for hundreds of Catholics who applauded Jerusalem's patriarch for a welcome speech that spoke of the "agony of the Palestinian people" under occupation.

Pope’s past

At Monday's Yad Vashem ceremony, the pope spoke of the "horrific tragedy of the Shoah", the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, but disappointed some Jewish leaders who had looked for an apology, as a German and a Catholic, for the genocide.

"He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them," Reuben Rivlin, the speaker of Israel's parliament, told Israel Radio.

In response, Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said the pope had addressed the issue of his nationality many times, notably during a visit to the Auschwitz death camp in 2006: "He did not think that every time he has to repeat in every speech all the points about the tragedy of the Holocaust."

Lombardi stressed, as the pope himself has done before, that Benedict's association with the Hitler Youth was not an "active participation" with Nazism. He later served in anti-aircraft and infantry units and ended World War Two a prisoner of U.S. forces.

In what appeared to be an attempt to rally to the pope's defence, Israeli Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger said he was certain the pontiff subscribed to the prayer Pope John Paul II placed in the Western Wall nine years ago in which he asked for God's forgiveness for suffering caused to Jews over the centuries.

In the prayer he slotted into a stone crevice of the remnant of the Roman-era Jewish Temple complex, Pope Benedict mentioned in general terms "the suffering and the pain of all your people throughout the world" and called for peace in the Middle East.



Three religions

On the first ever papal visit to the Dome of the Rock, he met the Grand Mufti, the Palestinians' senior Muslim cleric, and recalled the common roots of Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

The Dome stands at the spot where all three great monotheistic religions believe Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son to God, before an angel stayed his hand. King Solomon and his successors built Jewish temples there before the Romans razed the Second Temple in 70 AD and Jews scattered in exile.

The area around, including the al-Aqsa mosque and known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary, has been a focus of tensions since Israeli forces captured Jerusalem's Old City in 1967.

After meeting Israel's chief rabbis, the pope prayed at the site of Jesus' Last Supper before his crucifixion.

At a sunlit afternoon mass for hundreds of worshippers at the Garden of Gethsemane, beneath the Mount of Olives and the city walls, he evoked the "universal vocation" of Jerusalem as the spiritual home of Jews, Muslims and Catholics.

The Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, Fouad Twal, won applause from worshippers when he spoke of "the agony of the Palestinian people who dream of living in a free and independent Palestinian state". He also spoke of the "agony of the Israeli people" whose "military might" had not brought them security.

The pope recalled "the difficulties, the frustration and the pain and suffering which so many of you have endured as a result of the conflicts which have afflicted these lands".

The mass was far from the stadium-sized event the pope is used to elsewhere. There are some 140,000 Catholics in Israel and the West Bank, mostly Arabs. Some complain of Israeli security restrictions limiting their access to Jerusalem.

The pope will spent Wednesday in Bethlehem in the West Bank, where he will meet the Palestinian president and refugees.
 

Date created : 2009-05-12

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