Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, in a major speech to Italy's parliament, attacked wartime Pope Pius XII on Wednesday for his "silence" during the Nazis' mass killings of Jews.
Wiesel, an Auschwitz and Buchenwald survivor, gave the emotional speech on World Holocaust Remembrance Day - also the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.
At about the same time German-born Pope Benedict, who has defended the actions of his wartime predecessor, was also speaking about the Holocaust at his general audience at the Vatican across the River Tiber.
"Whether at the lowest level of politics or the highest level of spirituality, silence never helps the victims. Silence always helps the aggressor," Wiesel told parliamentarians and top officials including Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
A member of Wiesel's entourage later confirmed that the words "highest level of spirituality" were a reference to Pius, who headed the Roman Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958.
The question of what Pius did or did not do to help Jews during the war remains a burning issue between Catholics and Jews, and Wiesel's reference to Pius indicated it shows no sign of being resolved.
Ten days ago, Pope Benedict made his first visit to Rome's synagogue, where a Jewish leader told him bluntly that Pius should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust to show solidarity with Jews being led to the "ovens of Auschwitz".
The Vatican maintains that Pius was not silent during the war, but chose to work behind the scenes, concerned that public intervention would have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in a wartime Europe dominated by Hitler.
At his general audience Benedict, who was drafted into the Hitler Youth and German army as a teenager during World War Two, called the Holocaust a "homicidal folly" that should never be forgotten.
"With an emotional spirit, we think of the countless victims of blind and religious hate, those who underwent deportation, imprisonment and death in those abhorrent and inhuman places," Benedict said.
Jews have asked that the Vatican's wartime archives be opened up to scholars so the role of Pius can be cleared up.
In his speech, Wiesel also renewed his demand that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and called for the destruction of Israel, be arrested the next time he leaves Iran.
"He should be hauled off to the International Court of Justice to face charges of incitement of crimes against humanity," Wiesel said.
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