Pope Pius XII
Pope Pius XII Photo by AP
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A leading Israeli official has praised Pope Pius XII for saving Jews during the Nazi occupation of Rome, a surprise twist in a long-standing controversy over the pontiff's wartime role.

The comments by Mordechai Levy, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, were some of the warmest ever made by a Jewish official about Pius. Most have been very critical of his record

Levy, speaking at a ceremony on Thursday night to honor an Italian priest who helped Jews, said that Catholic convents and monasteries had opened their doors to save Jews in the days following a Nazi sweep of Rome's Ghetto on Oct. 16, 1943.

"There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on," he said in a speech.

"So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true," he said.

The question of what Pius did or did not do to help Jews has tormented Catholic-Jewish relations for decades and it is very rare for a leading Jewish or Israeli leader to praise Pius.

Many Jews accuse Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the scenes because speaking out would have led to Nazi reprisals against Catholics and Jews in Europe.

Jewish hurt

Levy told Reuters on Friday that he expected his comments to cause a stir but that he was standing by them.

"I am aware this is going to raise some eyebrows in the Rome Jewish community but this refers to saving Jews, which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did not do and which Jews were expecting from him," Levy said.

When Pope Benedict visited Rome's synagogue last year, the president of the capital's Jewish community told him that Pius' "silence before the Holocaust" still hurt Jews because more should have been done.

Many Jews responded angrily last year when the pope said in a book that Pius was "one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else".

Jews have asked that an ongoing process that could lead to Pius becoming a saint be frozen until all the Vatican archives from the period have been opened and studied.

Levy said that most probably even opening the archives would not settle the controversy over Pius's role during the war.