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Israel rabbi asks pope to halt Pius' beatification

January 12, 2010

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ROME—Pope Benedict XVI should be welcomed when he visits Rome's main synagogue, but he should halt moves to beatify wartime pontiff Pius XII, criticized for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust, a former chief rabbi of Israel said Tuesday.

Israel Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor and now chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, said Benedict's synagogue visit Sunday would be "appreciated and blessed." But in an interview with Italy's Sky TG24 television, he said he was "surprised" by Benedict's decision last month to move the controversial World War II-era pope closer to sainthood.

Benedict sparked outrage among some Jewish groups by signing a decree on Pius' heroic virtues, paving the way for him to be beatified once a miracle attributed to his intercession is confirmed.

Some Jews and historians have argued that Pius, pope from 1939-1958, was largely silent on the Holocaust and should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators.

The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews and that speaking out more forcefully would have resulted in more deaths.

It said last month the decree on his heroic virtues wasn't so much a historical assessment of his pontificate as a confirmation that he had led a deeply Christian life.

In the past, Jewish leaders had asked the pope to put the beatification on hold until archives on Pius' pontificate are opened to outside scholars. The Vatican has said those archives won't be catalogued and ready until 2014 at the earliest.

In the interview broadcast Tuesday, Lau said Benedict should halt the process for this generation, saying that beatifying Pius would offend Holocaust survivors.

Lau urged the pope "not to take the next step for the beatification of Pius XII, not in this generation," adding this would "hurt the feelings of those Holocaust survivors who are still alive."

Lau spoke in Hebrew and his words were mostly covered by an Italian translation. Calls to the rabbinate to confirm his comments were not answered Tuesday evening.

Asked by Sky's reporter how Jews compared Benedict to his predecessor, the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, Lau said the biggest contrast was in their wartime record.

"John Paul II spent the Holocaust on the side of the victims, while Benedict XVI spent World War II on the other side of the barricade, and this can be a big difference," he said according to the translation.

John Paul suffered through the Nazi occupation of his country. The German-born Benedict was forced to join the Hitler Youth and then served in the army before deserting near the end of the war.