Rome's Jews Furious Over Papal Decree Extolling Pius' 'Heroic Virtues'

ROME - Pope Benedict XVI's decree Saturday of Pope Pius XII's "heroic virtues" has Rome's Jewish community up in arms. The announcement makes sainthood one step closer for the head of the Catholic church during World War II, who has been accused of not helping the Jews during the war.

Following Benedict's declaration, Jewish representatives and Vatican officials conducted a series of hastily convened meetings in an effort to calm tensions.

Jewish community organizations around the world say the canonization process for Pius XII should wait until the Vatican archives are opened, because this might shed light on Pius' conduct during the Holocaust. The Vatican has said the archives will not be opened before 2014.

Benedict's planned visit to Rome's Great Synagogue has been overshadowed by the conflict.

"Even if the visit takes place, the joyous atmosphere [surrounding the visit] has been totally destroyed," said Guido Vitale, editor of Italy's Jewish newspaper, Pagine Ebraiche.

The current situation reflects indecision as to whether Jews should be seen as a partner for dialogue or target for conversion, said Vitale.

There are no secrets, said Father Federico Lombardi, the director of the Vatican press office, a position supported by Giovannni Maria Vian, the editor of the Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano.

Even if the Vatican archives are not opened, many documents concerning Pius' activities have been publicized, Vian told Haaretz.

"I understand the feelings of the Jewish community," Vian said, adding, "The Jews are not the only ones worried about the possibility of his canonization, but at this stage, it would be a mistake on our part to fan the flames."

The Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, Mordechai Levy, agreed with Vian's assessment.

"When considering a church figure connected to Jewish matters, it is appropriate to express an opinion about his historical role, but I am not sure the answers will come from opening the archives. In any event, I believe we don't need to burn our bridges, not with the pope, not with the Vatican and certainly not with the Christian world," said Levy.