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Pope Benedict paid tribute on Sunday to Nazi-era pontiff Pius XII, who is at the center of a controversy with Jewish groups accusing him of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust.

The pope was giving mass at Rome's San Lorenzo basilica, which was partly destroyed by massive Allied bombing on July 19, 1943 that killed at least 3,000 people across the neighborhood. He said Pius had rushed to the scene to assist the victims.

"The generous gesture on that occasion by my venerable predecessor, who immediately ran to help and comfort the stricken population in the smoldering rubble, cannot be erased from historical memories," the Pope said in his homily.

The Nazi-era pontiff, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1958, has been accused by some Jews of inaction over the Holocaust during World War Two, a charge his supporters and the Vatican deny.

Several influential Jewish groups have called on Benedict to freeze the process that could one day make Pius a saint until more Vatican archives on the wartime period are opened, with one Italian Jewish leader saying that making Pius a saint before information is available would open a "wound difficult to heal."

At issue is whether Benedict should let Pius proceed on the road to sainthood - which Catholic supporters want - by signing a decree recognizing his "heroic virtues." This would clear the way for beatification, the last step before sainthood.

Benedict has so far not signed the decree - approved last year by the Vatican's department in charge of saints, opting instead for what the Vatican has called a period of reflection.

The Vatican says while Pius did not speak out against the Holocaust, he worked behind the scenes to help Jews because direct intervention would have worsened the situation by prompting retaliation by Hitler.