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VATICAN CITY (RNS) Catholic-Jewish tensions over Pope Pius XII flared again after a church official suggested on Saturday (Oct. 18) that a Jerusalem museum exhibit about the World War II-era pontiff was an impediment to Israeli-Vatican relations.
The statement prompted a response from Israeli President Shimon Peres, and was followed by an Israeli Web site displaying an image of Pope Benedict XVI covered by a swastika.
Critics allege that Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, failed to do or say all he could to stop the Nazis’ persecution and genocide of the Jews. The late pope’s defenders counter that he heroically condemned anti-Semitism throughout Hitler’s reign, and both directly and indirectly saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
This latest episode in the long-running controversy began when the Rev. Peter Gumpel told the Italian news agency ANSA that Benedict would not visit Israel unless the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum removed a plaque suggesting that Pius had been indifferent to the survival of the Jews.
Gumpel is the official advocate for Pius in the process that will determine if the wartime pontiff becomes a saint. In May 2007, a Vatican body voted unanimously to declare Pius “venerable,” a prerequisite to sainthood, but Benedict has yet to sign the decree.
On Saturday, Gumpel said Benedict’s delay stemmed from concerns about the reactions of Jewish groups.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican press office, said afterwards in a statement that the Yad Vashem display was not the “determining factor” in Benedict’s decision about whether to make his first visit to Israel as pope.
Peres said on Monday (Oct. 20) that a papal “visit to Israel should not be tied to controversy over Pius XII.” Peres reiterated a standing invitation offered to Benedict when the two met at the Vatican in September 2007.
Also on Monday, an Israeli Web site supportive of the country’s governing Kadima party briefly displayed a photograph of Benedict superimposed with a Nazi swastika, but removed the image shortly after it was publicly condemned by the party’s leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
By Francis X. Rocca
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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