The Vatican defended Pope Benedict XVI on Tuesday as a man of strong anti-Nazi credentials, and backtracked over an earlier claim that he had never been a member of the Hitler Youth in his native Germany, which had contradicted statements by the pontiff himself.
A Vatican spokesman at first flatly denied that Benedict, 82, was ever in the Nazi youth movement. But when reporters noted the pope himself spoke of his membership in a 1996 book, he revised the statement to say: "He was enrolled involuntarily into the Hitler Youth but he had no active participation."
Meanwhile, the pope also came under renewed fire for his speech a day earlier at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Knesset Speaker Rueven Rivlin accused the pope of showing detachment from Jewish suffering under the Nazis. He referred to Benedict as "a German who joined the Hitler Youth and ... Hitler's army".
Lombardi told reporters in Jerusalem earlier Tuesday: "The pope was never in the Hitler Youth, never, never, never."
In "Salt of the Earth", a 1996 book of autobiographical and religious reflections based on interviews with German journalist Peter Seewald, the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said, however, that he was automatically enrolled into the Hitler Youth.
Asked if he had been a member, he said: "At first we weren't, but when the compulsory Hitler Youth was introduced in 1941, my brother was obliged to join. I was still too young, but later, as a seminarian, I was registered in the HY. As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back."
He also said he served on anti-aircraft batteries and was conscripted into the German infantry late in the war.
'Pope bears burden of Holocaust'
Citing Benedict's teenage membership in the Hitler Youth and German military service, Rivlin on Tuesday berated the pope over his address at Yad Vashem.
"With all due respect to the Holy See, we cannot ignore the burden he bears, as a young German who joined the Hitler Youth and as a person who joined Hitler's army, which was an instrument in the extermination," Rivlin told Israel Radio.
"He came and told us as if he were a historian, someone looking in from the sidelines, about things that should not have happened. And what can you do? He was a part of them," Rivlin said.
The Vatican spokesman made a distinction between convinced Hitler Youth activists and members of the anti-aircraft units, omitting the category of involuntary Hitler Youth members to which Benedict has been quoted as saying he belonged.
"The Hitler Youth was a corps of volunteers, fanatically, ideologically for the Nazis," Lombardi said.
The anti-aircraft auxiliary corps the pope was enrolled in towards the end of the war "had absolutely nothing to do with the Hitler Youth and the Nazis and Nazi ideology", he added.
"It is important to say what is true and not to say false things about a very sensitive thing like this," Lombardi said.
Histories of the air-aircraft auxiliary corps, known as the "Flakhelfer", and of the Hitler Youth, describe the auxiliaries as being organised as a unit of the Hitler Youth.
The visit by the head of the Catholic Church also sparked controversy MOnday, when Benedict walked out of an interfaith meeting in Jerusalem after a Palestinian Muslim cleric accused Israel of "slaughter."
At the Yad Vashem ceremony, the pope spoke of the "horrific tragedy of the Shoah," the Hebrew term for the Holocaust, but disappointed some Jewish religious leaders who said he should have apologized as a German and a Christian for the genocide.
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