pope - AP - June 27 2011
Levy with current Pope Benedict in 2008. Photo by AP
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ATHENS - In a rather embarrassing turnabout, Israel's ambassador to the Vatican, Mordechai Levy, admitted yesterday that he may have been wrong to praise Pius XII, the World War II-era pope blamed by some for having failed to speak out enough against the Holocaust.

When considering the delicacy of the issue and ongoing research about it, the opinion that he expressed last week about the role of Pius, the Vatican and Catholic Church during the war had been "premature," Levy clarified in a statement.

Levy made headlines - on the front page of the Vatican newspaper - when he praised the pope and the Church for providing refuge to Roman Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Italian capital. He spoke at ceremony Thursday awarding a "Righteous of the Nations" medal to Gaetano Piccini, an Italian priest who sheltered Jews, noting that Piccini wasn't alone in saving Jewish lives in Rome.

"It would be an error to declare that the Catholic Church, the Vatican or the pope himself opposed actions aimed at saving Jews," Levy said. "The contrary is actually true: They helped wherever they could."

A day later, asked about his comments, Levy stood by them, telling Reuters: "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."

Such comments are noteworthy inasmuch as they seem to indicate a shift in the historic view of a figure the Vatican considers worthy of one of the church's greatest honors, but who many Jews consider a coward in terms of morality.

Pius served as pope from 1939-1958, before which he served as the Vatican's No. 2 and previously as the papal nuncio to Germany. Due to his close involvement in the Vatican's diplomatic affairs with the Nazis, Pius's actions or inactions during the war period have become the single most divisive issue in Vatican-Jewish relations.

The Vatican insists that Pius used quiet diplomacy, and note that if he had spoken out more publicly and critically against the Nazis, there would have been more Jewish deaths.

Critics argue that he could and should have said and done more, and have opposed Pope Benedict XVI's desire to see Pius beatified, the first step to sainthood. Jewish leaders have long asked that such a move be put on hold until the Vatican archives is opened to scholars who will be able to research the matter fully.