Pope Benedict XVI paid tribute to the victims of the Holocaust yesterday at the start of a three-day visit to Austria overshadowed by growing public discontent with the Catholic Church.
The German-born pontiff chose Judenplatz, or Jews' Square, for one of the first stops of his tour. He joined Vienna's chief rabbi Paul Chaim Eisenberg for prayers in front of a monument to the 65,000 Jews from the city killed by the Nazis. The Pope had earlier said that the gesture, in a city where the Jewish population was all but eradicated, was intended to show "our sadness, our repentance and our friendship with the Jewish people".
Vienna had a Jewish population of 185,000 before 1938. Today the number is less than 7,000. In a welcome address, Heinz Fischer, the Austrian President, said his country had experienced "dark hours in its history".
The Pope has visited Austria several times in his previous role as cardinal and has spent holidays in the country. Yesterday he paid tribute to Austria's Catholics, saying: "I have a vivid sense of being at home, here in your midst."
However, his visit was beset by mounting dissatisfaction. More than a third of Austria's Catholics have left the church over the past two decades.
Younger believers have taken issue with the Pope's stand on contraception, homosexuality, gay marriage and Aids. The Pope stressed before his visit that he hoped his stay would help "heal the wounds" in Austria's Catholic community.