Pope 'deeply saddened' by Holocaust

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The Independent Online

Addressing the Jewish people at their Holocaust memorial in highly personal words, Pope John Paul II has said the Catholic Church is "deeply saddened" by Christian persecution of Jews throughout history, and called for a new relationship between the two faiths based on their common roots.

His words were seen as the crowning chapter to efforts throughout his 22-year papacy to reconcile Jews and Christian.

Still, many Jews had hoped for more.

The pope did not assign any blame to the Catholic Church hierarchy, and he did not mention Pope Pius XII, the war-time pontiff accused by many Jews of staying silent while their brethren were killed.

In a ceremony at the dark, candlelit Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, its stone floor engraved with the names of death camps, the pontiff laid a wreath in memory of the six million Jews who perished in the Nazi genocide - among them childhood friends from the small Polish town of Wadowice.

The visit capped a morning of remarkable gestures to Israel and the Jewish people.

In a meeting with President Ezer Weizman, the pontiff blessed Israel, an act seen by many Israelis as final church recognition of their state. For centuries, the Catholic Church taught the Jews' exile was punishment for the death of Jesus.

In sharp contrast, Pope Paul VI, the last pontiff to visit the Holy Land in 1964, had not mentioned the word "Israel" and refused to address the Israeli president at the time, Zalman Shazar, by his title.

In a display of Catholic-Jewish amity, the pope also met Israel's two chief rabbis, Eliyahu Bakshi Doron and Israel Meir Lau, at their office in west Jerusalem. The two black-robed, bearded rabbis handed the white-clad pontiff a Bible, the dedication an allusion to religious co-existence, taken from the book of the Prophet Micah. "For all the people who will walk, everyone in the name of his God, and we will walk in the name of the Lord, or God, forever and ever."

The pontiff is seen by many Israelis not only as the leader of one billion Catholics, but as the representative of the entire Christian world.

However, his visit to Yad Vashem was also highly personal. Born Karol Wojtyla in the town of Wadowice near Krakow 79 years ago, John Paul himself witnessed the persecution of Jews as a young seminary student and said time had not erased the terrible memories.

"I remember my Jewish friends and neighbors, some of whom perished, while others survived. I have come to Yad Vashem to pay homage to the millions of Jewish people who, stripped of everything, especially of their human dignity, were murdered in the Holocaust," he said.

Addressing the role of the church during those years, he said: "As Bishop of Rome and successor of the Apostle Peter, I assure the Jewish people that the Catholic Church, motivated by the Gospel law of truth and love, and by no political considerations, is deeply saddened by the hatred, acts of persecution and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews by Christians at any time and in any place."