"There are no words strong enough to deplore the terrible tragedyof the Shoah," the Roman Catholic pontiff told a small group ofdignitaries and Holocaust survivors gathered at the hilltop Yad Vashem memorial site. "Only a godless theology couldplan and carry out the extermination of a whole people."
But neither the pope nor Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who also spoke,made any mention of the bitter controversy over the wartime role of PopePius XII. Some Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States hadalso expected the pope to amplify on the general apology for anti-Semitism he expressed earlier this month, but that did not happen.
The starkly dramatic ceremony in Yad Vashem's Hall of Remembranceevoked emotion of another kind from the 79-year-old pontiff, whorecalled his own memories "of all that happened when the Nazis occupiedPoland during the war."
"I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished,while others survived," he said.
Earlier in the day, John Paul with "deep emotion" celebrated Massin the Chapel of the Cenaculum, revered by Christians as the Bible'sUpper Room, where Jesus met with his disciples for the Last Supper beforehis death on the cross. John Paul also on Thursday met with Israel's two chiefrabbis and attended an interfaith ceremony that included Muslimrepresentatives.
The rabbis unexpectedly proposed that the pope establish a permanentdialogue between the three religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--that trace their origins to Abraham, the patriarch.
"It came out in the meeting. We proposed that there be a permanentdialogue between all three religions. It is very important," Sephardic Chief Rabbi Bakshi-Doron told Religion News Service.
The pope and the two rabbis met again in late afternoon at aninterfaith encounter also attended by Taysir Al Tamimi, the head of thePalestinian Authority court system.
Tamimi, son of an Islamic jihad activist deported to Jordan byIsrael in the 1980s, delivered an impassioned--and unscripted--speechclaiming Jerusalem as the "eternal capital of Palestine."
The Vatican had hoped that the grand mufti of Jerusalem, the highestMuslim juridical authority in Israel, would represent the Muslim faith,but he declined the invitation.
"He probably thought that the political peace process is notadvanced enough to meet with rabbis," said Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein,director of the Elijah School for the Study of Wisdom in World Religion,who organized the encounter.
Tamimi's fiery speech erupted in the middle of an encounter plannedas an entirely noncontroversial event, complete with entertainment byJewish, Christian, and Muslim children.
"I welcome the great guest, your holiness Pope John Paul II, to theeternal capital of Muslims, the eternal capital of Palestine," thecleric said in Arabic. And, to the applause of Muslims in the audience,he demanded the "right of return" for all Palestinians.
Returning to the program as originally planned, Goshen-Gottsteintold Tamimi politely that although he did not understand Arabic, hewanted to thank him for his obvious "genuineness and authenticity."
At the start of the ceremony at Yad Vashem, John Paul rekindled an"eternal flame" to make it burn more brightly beside a slab coveringthe ashes of victims from six death camps. With the help of CardinalsEdward Cassidy, who oversees Catholic-Jewish relations, and RogerEtchegaray, who is in charge of Holy Year celebrations, he laid a wreathon the burial place.
Grim-faced, his head bowed, the pope appeared close to tears asletters written by Holocaust victims before their deaths were read and acantor sang a prayer for the victims.
John Paul shook hands with the Holocaust survivors, four of themPoles. Among them were a woman whom the pope helped after the liberationof Poland, and Jurik Kluger, a childhood friend from Wadowice who nowlives in Rome and often eats Sunday lunch in the Apostolic Palace.
Although the name of Pius XII was not mentioned, it cast a shadowover the ceremony. Many Jews are outraged by the church's plan tobeatify Pius XII, who they say remained silent in the face of the Naziextermination of 6 million Jews. The Vatican contends that only byworking behind the scenes could the pope save hundreds of thousands ofJews from the death camps.
John Paul spoke strongly, but in general terms, about the Holocaustand the long history of Catholic anti-Semitism.
"As bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure theJewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law oftruth and love and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened bythe hatred, acts of persecution, and displays of anti-Semitism directedagainst the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place," the popesaid.