Pope Benedict XVI who announced Monday he would step down has presided over a papacy that worked to improve relations between the Catholic Church and Jews worldwide, desite some hiccups.
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Ashekenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yona Metzger praised Pope Benedict's inter-religious outreach following the announcement that he would resign, and said relations between Israel and the Vatican had never been better.
"During his period [as pope] there were the best relations ever between the church and the Chief Rabbinate and we hope that this trend will continue," a spokesperson quoted Metzger as saying after the pope announced he would resign. "I think he deserves a lot of credit for advancing inter-religious links the world over between Judaism, Christianity and Islam."
Metzger wished the pope "good health and long days," the spokesperson said.
Official diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican began in 1993 during the Papacy of John Paul II, marking a major a step toward Jewish-Catholic reconciliation from long-standing wounds. Many Jews in Israel and elsewhere believe, for example, that Holy See should have played a greater historical role combating anti-Semitism. Especially controversial is the claim by Jews and others that during the Holocaust Pope Pius XII failed to do all he could to stop the extermination of European Jews. In recents decades, relations between the Jewish State and the Catholic Church have warmed up but significant differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have increased the tension at times.
Pope Benedict XVI paid a visit to the Holy Land in 2009, calling the decision a reminder of the inseparable bond between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people. It was the first papal visit since John Paul came in the year 2000 and the third visit papal visit since the establishment of the State of Israel. Pope Benedict XVI visited the holy sites but for many in Israel the highlight was to watch the pope visit Yad Vashem. Some survivors were angered by the pope's address at the Holocaust remembrance center, saying it was not compassionate enough and that the speech was lacking in a strong enough condemnation of the Nazis.
Pope Benedict XVI was the first chief pontiff to make a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, tackling one of the most controversial issues in Christianity in a 2011 book. Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews. While the Vatican had for five decades taught that Jews weren't collectively responsible, Jewish scholars said the argument laid out by the German-born pontiff was significant and would help fight anti-Semitism today.
Israel and the Vatican have found less common ground over the conflict with the Palestinians. Most notably, the Vatican welcomed the United Nations General Assembly vote last year recognizing the state of Palestine - a move Israel hotly opposed and responded to by announcing plans for new settlement construction in the West Bank. In the same statement, the Vatican also renewed its call for an internationally guaranteed special status for Jerusalem, something which Israel rejects.
The pope had previously branded the West Bank separation fence as a symbol of "stalemate" between Israel and the Palestinians. He urged both sides to break a "spiral of violence."
In a public address last Christmas, Benedict prayed that God "grant Israelis and Palestinians courage to end long years of conflict and division, and to embark resolutely on the path to negotiation."
The European Jewish Congress said Monday Benedict furthered the work of interfaith dialogue in following in the footsteps of recent popes. The Congress praised in particular his intellectual commitment to stand against claims of Jewish guilt in the killing of Jesus and said it hoped the next pope will carry forward the positive legacy of dialogue.