Yad Vashem hoping pope's speech doesn't strain already tense ties
Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the Holy Land next week will provide another test for the often tense relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community. The pontiff will be expected to address the Holocaust, which has proved to be a bone of contention in the emotionally charged history between Jews and the Holy See.
"We expect that Pope Benedict XVI's speech at Yad Vashem will include a reference to the memory of the Holocaust in the present as well as in the future," said Avner Shalev, Yad Vashem's chairman of the directorate.
Shalev recalled that Benedict spent his childhood as a member of the Hitler Youth and later enlisted in the Wehrmacht.
"It is impossible to claim that these things do not have an impact," he said. "A person's habitat bears an influence on him, despite the fact that immediately after the war he disengaged from these things and devoted himself to studying religion."
Shalev made the comments during a briefing for reporters in the run-up to the pope's visit to Yad Vashem.
Shalev spent much time reflecting on the matter of Holocaust denial. He quoted the Holy See's envoy to Israel, Archbishop Antonio Franco, who told a Yad Vashem symposium that anyone who denies the Holocaust cannot be considered a Catholic.
"This certainly was not a slip of the tongue, but a statement that was coordinated with his superiors," Shalev said.
He also reminded reporters that pressure from Yad Vashem and the Israeli government compelled the Vatican to force Williamson to acknowledge that the Holocaust did indeed take place.
Jewish-Catholic relations have been extremely tense since Jan. 24, when Benedict lifted excommunications of four renegade traditionalist bishops in an attempt to heal a schism within the church that began in 1988, when they were ordained without Vatican permission.
One of the bishops, Richard Williamson, denies the full extent of the Holocaust and says there were no gas chambers. The priestly society to which he and the other excommunicated bishops belong, the Society of St. Pius X, was recently found by a probe to have openly propagated virulent anti-Semitism.
The probe's results were made public on Thursday. They found that the society's official U.S. Web site described Jews as "the enemy of man, whose secret weapon is the leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy," adding that "heads of Jewry have for centuries conspired methodically and out of an undying hatred against the Catholic name."