Pope lights new flame of harmony

Pontiff pays homage to Holocaust victims at Israeli memorial

'Deeply saddened'

Visit fails to go far enough for some who blame church

March 24, 2000|By John Rivera and Mark Matthews | John Rivera and Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Crossing a new threshold of reconciliation between Christians and Jews, Pope John Paul II paid an emotional visit yesterday to Israel's memorial to the Holocaust, saying the Roman Catholic Church was "deeply saddened" by anti-Semitism and Jewish persecution committed by Christians.

The pope did not fulfill the hopes of some Jews that he would specifically attach blame to the church or to Pope Pius XII, the pope during World War II, for failing to speak out against the Holocaust while it was happening.

Later in the day, he also came face to face with the religious hostility that permeates the Holy Land.

In the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem, which is always darkened, Pope John Paul greeted a half-dozen Holocaust survivors as the eternal flame flickered. One of them was a woman whom the pope, when a young priest in Poland, carried to safety on his back after she was liberated from a Polish concentration camp.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun inaccurately described Pope John Paul II, as a young priest in Poland, caring for a woman who had been liberated from "a Polish concentration camp." This implied that the camp was run by Poland. In fact, the camp was a Nazi German concentration camp in Poland, which was invaded by Germany at the outset of World War II. The Sun regrets the error.

"I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust," he said. "More than half a century has passed, but the memories remain."

Invoking his titles as the successor to the Apostle Peter and the bishop of Rome, the pope assured "the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews by Christians at any time and in any place."

"The church rejects racism in any form as a denial of the image of the creator inherent in every human being," he said.

High expectations

There were greater expectations in Israel of the pope's visit to Yad Vashem after his prayer for repentance in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome for Catholic sins. Some Jewish leaders were unhappy then that he didn't specifically mention the Holocaust.

Yisrael Meir Lau, chief rabbi for Jews of European descent, who had asked Pope John Paul to condemn church silence during the Holocaust, said he was disappointed that the pope did not mention Pope Pius, "a pope who didn't say a word at a time when rivers of blood were streaming all over Europe."

Pope John Paul has called Pope Pius "a great pope," and it would be highly unusual for him to criticize a predecessor.

His speech "was one of the great historic addresses about the Holocaust," said Shearyashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa, who said it dealt a "final blow to those who try to deny the Holocaust."

Cohen said he wished the pope had been "more clear in his denunciation of the role of the church in not doing enough to save the victims of the Holocaust," referring to a passage in Leviticus: "When your brother is in danger and his blood may be shed, don't stand aside but come and save him."

Stirring controversy

The pope has stirred controversy within the church for going as far as he has in seeking forgiveness for sins of Christians.

In his speech yesterday, he seemed to absolve Christianity of blame for the Holocaust by saying its perpetrators "had reached the point of contempt for God. Only a godless ideology could plan and carry out the extermination of a whole people."

Rabbi A. James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, a key figure in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue, said yesterday's statement broke no ground. Pope John Paul went further in acknowledging Catholic failings in earlier statements, he said.

"Where was the repentance and the responsibility?" he said.

But, Cohen said, the pope's presence at Yad Vashem will have a profound impact, particularly on Catholics who might not be aware of the church's condemnation of anti-Semitism.

"One billion Catholics heard it loud and clear. Catholics in Asia and Africa heard this from their pope," he said. "It's this pope coming to a Jewish country and going to this place. You can't underestimate the power of that."

During the ceremony, the pope relighted the eternal flame dedicated to keeping alive the memory of Nazism's millions of Jewish victims and bowed after two priests placed a large yellow-and-white wreath over a repository of ashes of extermination camp victims. Half of the victims were killed in his native Poland.

Praise from Barak

Prime Minister Ehud Barak summed up for his nation how Pope John Paul has touched the soul of Israelis.

Barak told the pope that when 3 million Jews from Poland died in concentration camps, including Barak's grandparents, "you were there, and you remembered. You have done more than anyone else to bring about the historic change in the attitude of the church toward the Jewish people, initiated by the good Pope John XXIII, and to dress the gaping wounds that festered over many bitter centuries."

Shewach Weiss, president of Yad Vashem, who translated for the pope during the ceremony, said later: "I looked into his face most of the time. Afterward, his eyes sort of shone. Judging by his looks, I have a feeling he went through a deep experience."

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