Pope John Paul II paid a historic visit to Rome's main synagogue today in a gesture of religious friendship that underscored the Roman Catholic Church's changed attitude toward Jews.
In a meeting heavy with symbolism, the pope broke new ground in efforts to erase traditional suspicions and enmities between religions. Through much of the past 2,000 years, Jews were persecuted and scorned because of church doctrine that blamed them for the death of Christ.
The pontiff embraced and prayed with Rome's chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, in the 82-year-old temple built in the ancient Tiber riverside ghetto where until a century ago popes had forced Roman Jews to be locked up from sunset until dawn.
Addressing "our dearly beloved brothers," John Paul, in the first known visit by a pope to a synagogue, acknowledged the "gravely deplorable" oppression of Jews in the past and declared that his church "deplores" anti-Semitic acts "at any time by anyone -- I repeat, by anyone."
Toaff, greeting John Paul as the two sat in gilded chairs on a platform of the temple altar, expressed his "great satisfaction for the gesture" of the visit, which he said is "destined to pass into history."
"Nevertheless, we cannot forget the past," Toaff said. "But we want today to initiate with faith and hope this new period," which he said places Christianity and Judaism on "a plane of parity, equality and reciprocal esteem."
But both Toaff and Giacomo Saban, president of Rome's Jewish community, made clear in addressing John Paul that they hoped the gesture of his visit to the synagogue would be followed with concrete actions to improve relations between the two religions -- such as the Vatican's recognition of the state of Israel.
The pope made no mention of recognition of Israel, a major bone of contention between many Jews and the Catholic Church, and his avoidance of the issue was cited afterward by many Jews present as a major disappointment. Before the visit, Vatican officials had emphasized that the pope's visit was purely religious and would not address political issues.
Officially, the Vatican says that it cannot recognize Israel because its boundaries with its neighbors are still in dispute. Jordan also is not recognized on the same grounds. Many Israeli officials contend that the Vatican refuses to recognize Israel because of its past views on Jews and its fears of antagonizing Arab governments with which it has diplomatic relations.
John Paul, in his speech, limited himself to restating, and strongly endorsing, his church's revised doctrine on the Jews, as proclaimed in 1965 by the Second Vatican Council. But the fact that he made the pilgrimage across the Tiber was greeted as an important gesture by the hundreds of Jews present, including several survivors of Nazi concentration camps, and a number of Catholic priests, nuns and lay people.
"With Judaism we have a relationship that we do not have with any other religion," the pope said in a speech in which he emphasized Christianity's and Judaism's links to the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. "You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers."
In an apparent reference to his church's past role in singling out the Jews for the persecutions that grew into centuries of institutionalized anti-Semitism -- a subject alluded to in a brief history of the Jews in Rome by Saban as he welcomed John Paul -- the pope readily acknowledged that the Jews had suffered injustices in the past.
He restated the basic tenets of the landmark Vatican II document "Nostra Aetate" (In Our Age), which first exonerated the Jews in official Catholic eyes of any responsibility in Christ's death, while emphasizing that "general acceptance of legitimate plurality on the social, civil and religious level has been arrived at only with great difficulty."
But that, he said, could "not prevent us from recognizing that acts such as discrimination, unjustified limitation of religious freedom, oppression also on the level of civil freedom in regard to the Jews, were, from an objective point of view, gravely deplorable manifestations."
Drawing the most applause from the 1,000 people who crammed into the ornate temple, the pope stressed that: "Once again, through myself, the church, in words of the well-known declaration 'Nostra Aetate,' deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time by anyone -- I repeat, by anyone."
While the pope did not elaborate on whom he meant when he underlined persecution of the Jews "by anyone," Jews in the audience who interrupted his speech with applause nine times said later that they considered it a reference to the sad history of the treatment of Jews in Rome by earlier popes.
Jewish historians here say that their plight in Rome since arriving here in the first century before Christ to found what they term the oldest Jewish community in Europe has varied from pope to pope over the centuries. But they say the church's behavior through the Middle Ages until the mid-19th century, when Rome was removed from papal rule at the time of Italian independence, caused bitterness.
Saban reminded everyone today that it was the church in 1553 that ordered hundreds of copies of the Talmud, the Jews' holy writings, burned in public in Rome.
Two years later, Saban recalled, Pope Paul IV ordered establishment of a walled ghetto where, until 1848, Jews were forced to live and were locked up at night.
Among a half-dozen camp survivors interviewed after the ceremony, there was unanimity of opinion that the pope's gesture was, as former Dachau inmate Mario Limentano, 63, put it, "a beautiful thing," but that it was a first step that would have to be reinforced by concrete acts.
"We hope that anti-Semitism will be buried with this act," Limentano said. "We hope now we can live as brothers. But there is still a lot more that needs to be done."