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Pope Benedict XVI used his first visit to Rome's synagouge on Sunday to defend the oft-criticized actions of the Vatican during the Holocaust, saying the Church had "acted in a discreet and hidden way."

The pope made the comments after a Jewish leader bluntly told the pontiff that his wartime predecessor Pius XII was "silent" in the face of the genocide of the Jewish people in Europe, and should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust.

"The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah still hurts because something should have been done," Riccardo Pacifici, president of Rome's Jewish community told the pope, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

"Maybe it would not have stopped the death trains, but it would have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, towards those brothers of ours transported to the ovens of Auschwitz [death camp]," he said.

Meanwhile, Israel, via Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, asked the pope during his synagogue visit to open up the Vatican archives covering Pius' papacy.

"I asked the pope to find a way to make it possible to open the archives in the Vatican in order to give some details of the papacy of Pius XII in order to ease tensions between the Jewish people and Catholics," Silvan Shalom told Reuters at the end of the pope's visit.

In his speech in the synagogue, Benedict balked at the accusation that the pope turned a blind eye to the plight of Europe's Jews, saying: "The Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way."

Benedict was welcomed with applause Sunday upon his arrival at the synagogue, a visit he said would improve relations between Catholics and Jews.

He was greeted by Rome and international Jewish leaders as he arrived at the synagogue on the banks of the Tiber - a short distance from the Vatican - to begin the two-hour visit.

Several prominent Jews said they would boycott the visit, but applause greeted the pope as he arrived at the synagogue in the Old Jewish Ghetto, where for hundreds of years Jews were confined under the orders of a 16th century pope.

Benedict warmly shook hands with the synagogue's retired chief rabbi, Elio Toaff, who welcomed John Paul II when the late pontiff visited the synagogue in a ground-breaking event in 1986.

A split at the heart of Italy's Jewish community over the visit and a barely averted crisis in relations with the Vatican did little to dampen the congregation's enthusiasm in welcoming the Pope.

Twenty-four hours before the pontiff's arrival, Sabbath prayers at the Rome synagogue resembled a movie set, with Italian Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni playing the role of director, assisted by a cohort of rabbis from across the country and around the world.

The synagogue's women's gallery was transformed into a press box for the occasion, expected to attract some 600 reporters. Plasma screens adorned the walls, while two television work-stations on either side of the Holy Ark - normally any synagogue's focal point - captured the rapt attention of the congregation's younger members.

"It looks like a scene from a movie," one older member said. "Let's just hope it has a happy ending."

As excitement over Benedict's arrival mounted over the past week, so did the tension. An announcement by the Vatican that it would expedite the process of making Pius XII a saint provoked alarm among many Jews, sewing discord among Italy's top rabbis and casting doubt on whether the visit would take place at all.

Last week, Rabbi Giuseppe Laras, president of Italy's rabbinical assembly, announced his refusal to participate in the event, saying it was unlikely to be fruitful and censuring the Rome community for its part in the affair. His condemnation, widely reported in the global press, has embarrassed Jewish leaders in Rome.

"The pope knew perfectly well that several weeks later he would be visiting the synagogue and he knew how sensitive we are about the issue of Pius XII. Wouldn't it have been opportune to delay (the decision) by a few months?" Laras asked in the Milan newspaper Il Giornale.

Laras, a former chief rabbi of Milan, said in another interview in the German Jewish weekly Judische Allgemeine that the visit should have been cancelled. He said ties between Catholic and Jews had "become increasingly weaker during this pontificate."

Tempers frayed still further when a few hours before the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday, Pope Benedict called publicly for unity between the Catholic Church and "Saint Pius XII," a hard-line conservative group that backs canonization of the controversial wartime pontiff and whose members include Richard Williamson and Florian Abrahamowicz - two priests at the center of a media storm last year when Pope Benedict ruled that they should be reinstated into the church, despite their apparent denial of the Holocaust.

In 2009 tensions with Jewish groups spiraled to the extent that the Vatican's spokesman, Federico Lombardo, was forced to reassure Jews publicly that "relations between Christians and Jews were not in dispute". On the eve of the Pope's synagogue visit, Jewish leaders in Italy told Haaretz that they had ordered congregations to keep silent in fear of stoking a quarrel that could see senior figures in the Jewsih community resign.