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Vatican envoy attends Holocaust memorial

Backs down from boycott

JERUSALEM -- The Vatican's ambassador to Israel attended a Holocaust memorial service yesterday, reversing an earlier decision to boycott the event that threatened to upset fragile ties between Israel and the Holy See.

Hundreds of people, including Holocaust survivors, attended the evening memorial service, bundled up against the cold. A youth choir sang, and Israeli leaders addressed the somber gathering.

Monsignor Antonio Franco said last week that he would skip the ceremony at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, marking the beginning of Israel's annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, because Catholics were offended by a caption at the museum describing the wartime conduct of Pope Pius XII.

Holocaust Remembrance Day, which memorializes the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II, is observed from sundown Sunday to sundown Monday with ceremonies, somber music on the radio, and historical documentaries and movies on national television. At 10 a.m. today , sirens will sound throughout the country for two minutes with Israelis standing silently to remember the victims.

Yad Vashem spokeswoman Iris Rosenberg said the memorial appreciated Franco's decision, calling it "the right thing to do."

"Yad Vashem believes that it was inappropriate to link an issue of historical research with commemoration of the victims of the Holocaust," she said.

The caption next to the picture of Pius says, "Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the pope did not protest," refusing to sign a 1942 Allied condemnation of the massacre of Jews.

Pius "maintained his neutral position" with two exceptions -- appeals he made to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia toward the end of the war, the caption says. It also criticizes "his silence and absence of guidelines."

Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic relations in 1993 following hundreds of years of strained relations between Catholics and Jews. Many sensitive issues remain unresolved, including the Vatican's actions during the Nazi genocide of Jews.

The Vatican has struggled to defend its wartime pope as it pushes his sainthood cause, insisting that Pius spearheaded discreet diplomacy that saved thousands of Jews.

The disputed photo caption first appeared in 2005, when Yad Vashem opened its new museum. Shortly after, the previous Vatican ambassador asked that it be changed.

But Yad Vashem has not done so, insisting its research on the pope's role was accurate.

The memorial service is traditionally attended by all foreign ambassadors to Israel or their representatives. Had Franco stayed away, Yad Vashem said, it would have been the first time a foreign emissary deliberately skipped the ceremony.

Despite frequent requests from Holocaust researchers, the Vatican has denied access to parts of its archives, including wartime papers.