Pope Benedict visits New York synagogue

Continuing his US tour, Pope Benedict XVI stopped in New York on Friday for the celebration of Passover in the first ever papal visit to a Jewish place of worship in America.


German-born Pope Benedict XVI on Friday became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit a Jewish place of worship in the United States, walking side by side with a Holocaust survivor into the sanctuary of New York's Park East synagogue.

"Shalom! It is with joy that I come here just a few hours before the celebration of your Pesah (Passover), to express my respect and esteem for the Jewish community of New York City," Benedict told some 400 people.

Among the gathering were former World Bank chief James Wolfensohn and several high-powered corporate bosses, all wearing white skullcaps that contrasted with the brilliant red caps of the dozen Roman Catholic cardinals in the sanctuary.

Benedict entered the sanctuary of the 120-year-old Byzantine-style synagogue shoulder to shoulder with Rabbi Arthur Schneier, an Austrian-born Jew who saw most of his family perish in the Holocaust.

A children's choir sang a Hebrew song of peace as the two men walked slowly down the red-velvet-carpeted center aisle of the sanctuary.

Sunshine shimmered through stainglass windows under the aquamarine, domed ceiling.

The shadow of a New York City police sharpshooter, who had taken up position on the roof hours before the pope arrived, moved past one of the windows, a reminder of the strict security measures in place for the papal visit to the United States, which began earlier this week in Washington.

Dump trucks filled with sand were posted at either end of 63rd Street, in the plush upper east side of Manhattan, and the road was barricaded off on both sides. Police and secret service agents crawled the pavements outside the synagogue.

"In our lifetime we have experienced -- both of us, your Holiness -- the ravages of war, the Holocaust, man's inhumanity to man and tasted the joy of freedom," Schneier said in a speech to the pope.

"Your visit today ... is a reaffirmation of your outreach, goodwill and commitment to enhancing Jewish-Catholic relations ... In the last 45 years, much progress has been made," he added.

He was echoing words spoken in Washington by the pontiff, who has continued the conciliatory steps taken by his predecessor, John Paul II, to improve relations with Jews.

Although Benedict has sometimes fumbled his efforts to heal the wounds of the past between the Catholic church and world Jewry -- including most recently, by reintroducing a controversial prayer which calls for the conversion of Jews -- his visit to the synagogue smoothed the waters and won hearts.

"That prayer certainly is not Jew-friendly," Schneier told reporters after the brief papal visit.

"But this kind of prayer would not have been written at all in the spirit of 'Nostra Aetate'," he added, referring to a declaration governing the Roman Catholic church's relations with non-Christian religions, which was overwhelmingly passed by the Vatican Council in 1965.

"Pope Benedict, in the spirit of Nostra Aetate, has said: 'I trust the almighty will give me the strength to continue the dialogue with the brothers and sisters," he added.

"The message he sends today was clear: the leader of the Catholic world standing in an American synagogue for the first time in history," he said.

Howard Rubinstein, vice-chairman of the Holocaust Museum in New York, also praised the pope's gesture towards the Jewish people.

"In coming here he has made a spectacular effort to create good will between our two religions and that means an awful lot, particularly in view of the suffering we had during the war and the historical relationship that existed," Rubinstein told AFP.

Benedict was presented by Rabbi Schneier with a gleaming seder made with two kilos (4.4 pounds) of sterling silver, a prayer book from a teenage boy and a box of matzos by a Jewish schoolgirl.

"I will eat them tomorrow night," the start of the Jewish feast of Passover, said the pontiff, as he accepted the gift of unleavened bread.

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