Pope reaches out to Jews in German homeland

22nd September 2011, Comments 0 comments

Pope Benedict XVI Thursday called for closer ties between the Catholic and Jewish faiths, drawing lessons from the horror of the Nazi Holocaust on his first state visit to his native Germany.

Speaking after a meeting with Jewish community leaders in Berlin, Benedict said he was convinced that "trust has grown between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church."

Nevertheless, he added: "At the same time it is clear to us all that a loving relationship of mutual understanding between Israel and the Church, each respecting the being of the other, still has further to grow and needs to be built into the heart of our proclamation of the faith."

Benedict, 84, who as young Joseph Ratzinger growing up in Bavaria served in the Hitler Youth movement, said the Holocaust showed what humanity was capable of when it rejected God.

"The supposedly 'almighty' Adolf Hitler was a pagan idol, who wanted to take the place of the biblical God, the Creator and Father of all men," the pope said.

"What man is capable of when he rejects God, and what the face of a people can look like when it denies this God, the terrible images from the concentration camps at the end of the war showed," added the pontiff.

The head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Dieter Graumann, said there were plenty of topics that still raised hackles among the community.

"The topic of the Pius brotherhood, which in our view still stands for fanaticism, fundamentalism, racism, anti-Semitism, in fact simply for the darkest Middle Ages and for irreconcilability pure and simple, is one which we still find painful," he said.

The fundamentalist Society of Saint Pius X brotherhood is locked in negotiations with the Vatican for its reintegration if it agrees to accept certain founding principles, following a split in 1988.

Benedict offended the Jewish community in Germany, among others, when he lifted the excommunication of a member of this brotherhood who denied the Holocaust -- earning himself a rare rebuke from Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Church feels a "great closeness" to the Jewish people, Benedict said, citing an official Vatican declaration which calls for an "irrevocable commitment to pursue the path of dialogue, fraternity and friendship."

"This is true of the Catholic Church as a whole," said the pope.

Holocaust survivors welcomed Benedict's comments.

Elan Steinberg of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants hailed the "categorical reaffirmation of the continuing importance of genuine dialogue between the Catholic Church and world Jewry."

Graumann, however, also touched on another sensitive issue between the Catholic Church and Jews: Vatican moves to sanctify World War II-era pope Pius XII, whose public silence on the Holocaust has been widely criticised.

"The envisioned beatification of Pope Pius XII which would further hurt our feelings and disappoint us," he said.

On a previous trip, Benedict visited a synagogue in Cologne, becoming only the second Roman Catholic leader in modern history to visit a Jewish place of worship, following Pope John Paul II's stop at a Rome synagogue in 1986.

During his speech there, the pope also condemned the "unimaginable crime" of the Holocaust.

His words in Cologne were greeted by a standing ovation.

At the time, Paul Spiegel, then president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany who was also in the audience, said he had been "extremely impressed" by the pope's speech.

Steinberg said the most welcome statement was "the emotionally moving and landmark denunciation by this German-born pope of Hitler and the criminal Nazi regime in the heart of Berlin."

"We wish only it had been said some six decades ago," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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