Israelis Criticize Pope For Holocaust Remarks

Pope Benedict XVI travels to Jordan and Israel on an eight-day visit to the Middle East.
By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

JERUSALEM, May 12 -- Pope Benedict XVI faced criticism Tuesday from Israeli religious and political leaders over his remarks about the Holocaust, a controversy that threatened to overshadow his calls for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East.

The pope's eight-day trip to Jordan and Israel had been carefully planned to reflect the sensitivities of Jews, Muslims and Christians. On Tuesday, for example, he visited both the Western Wall, where he followed Jewish tradition and placed a written prayer in the stones of Judaism's holiest place, and the Dome of the Rock, sacred to Muslims as the place from which the prophet Muhammad embarked on a miraculous journey to heaven.

But Benedict has run into a thicket of emotional expectations that he has left unsatisfied, particularly with his comments Monday at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. Israeli critics said the German-born pope missed an opportunity to express regret for his country's central role in the extermination of 6 million Jews.

"You were not asked to do something unprecedented or heroic. All that was required from you was a brief, authoritative and touching sentence. All you had to do was to express regret. That's all we wanted to hear," wrote Hanoch Daum, a columnist for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.

The tepid reaction to Benedict's trip prompted the Holy See's press office to mount a defense on Tuesday. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters it was unrealistic to expect the pope to recite a full litany of hoped-for phrases and ideas at every stop.

Lombardi noted that the 82-year-old pontiff has previously addressed many of the critics' concerns. During a 2006 stop at Auschwitz, for instance, Benedict said it was "particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a pope from Germany," to see the Nazi death camp.

"They think every time he should repeat everything, but this is not possible," Lombardi said.

Sensitive Personal History

But the Vatican's defense also drew attention to an issue it did not seek to highlight: the pope's compulsory membership in the Hitler Youth as a teenager in Bavaria during the war. Lombardi at first denied Benedict's involvement in the youth group -- which the pope mentions in his autobiography -- then later in the day clarified that the pontiff was "involuntarily enrolled."

The criticism was not limited to public figures. As the pope made a multi-faith tour of Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday, honoring Christian, Jewish and Muslim sites with words of peace and fellowship, members of all three faiths said they had heard little from the pontiff to indicate he understood what is important to them.

"If you come to the Jewish land as a German -- we had different expectations. More taking on of responsibility," said Yuval Wultz, 29, who was shopping in the Old City's Jewish Quarter in preparation for his wedding.

Yacoub Moussa, a Christian Palestinian, noted that Jewish settlers had moved into Old City buildings where Arabs traditionally lived and wondered how the pope might address that.

Mohammed Salameh, a Muslim, noted that Benedict had yet to utter the words "Israeli occupation" during his trip and suggested that if the pope does not do so, it will be a sign he has sided with Israel.

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