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Benedict Visits Middle East in Closely-watched Pilgrimage

BY Admin  May 11, 2009 at 5:00 PM EST

Pope Benedict visits a Holocaust Memorial; Getty

Benedict’s move to ease tensions with the Jewish community after his recent decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust denying bishop appeared only partially successful. The top two officials at Israel’s Holocaust memorial faulted the pope for not apologizing or using the words “murder” or “Nazis” during a speech at the site, according to the Associated Press.

“I can only imagine the joyful expectation of their parents as they anxiously awaited the birth of their children. What name shall we give this child? What is to become of him or her? Who could have imagined that they would be condemned to such a deplorable fate,” the 82-year-old pope said during his visit to the memorial.

“As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts,” he said. The pontiff spoke with six Holocaust survivors as part of the ceremonies.

Another critical point of contention between Catholics and Jews remains the role of Pope Pius XII during World War II. Benedict has called him a “great churchman” and supports efforts to make him a saint despite Jewish concerns about his wartime conduct.

Although Benedict largely enjoyed a reputation as being a promoter of good relations with Jewish leaders before becoming pope, his personal history and public missteps since assuming the church’s top post have caused unease in Israel.

The pope riled sensitivities in January when the Vatican reinstated four bishops who were members of a conservative catholic sect and were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. One of the clergymen, Bishop Richard Williamson, denies that gas chambers were used during the Holocaust and that 6 million Jews died. The Vatican eventually demanded that Williamson recant his statements, maintaining that it did not know enough about the British bishop’s past.

Benedict, who is German-born, was a member of the Hitler Youth corps as a boy when enrollment was mandatory.

“I told the pope he was born in Germany but I don’t look at him as a German but as a human being and head of the Catholic Church,” said Holocaust survivor Ed Mosberg, a Jew who was born in Poland and now lives in the United States who attended the ceremonies, according to Reuters.

“But I told him that he knows that the Holocaust happened and I asked him to condemn all the deniers,” Mosberg said.

As Benedict attempts to reach out to Israel by honoring the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, he will also try to connect to Muslims, calling for greater understanding between Christianity and Islam during his trip. In 2006, riots erupted in the Middle East when the Pope quoted a Byzantine Emperor who said Islam brought things “evil and inhuman.”

Before arriving in Israel, Benedict went to Jordan for three days, where he met with the religious adviser to King Abdullah II, visited a mosque and other holy sites and gave a speech in the capital city of Amman. He said “ideological manipulation” of religion was most often to blame for tension and misunderstanding between different faiths.

Upon his arrival in Israel Monday, the pope made reference to the establishment of a Palestinian homeland in his remarks. He plans to visit a Palestinian refugee camp as part of his trip.

The pontiff said both Israelis and Palestinians should “live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders.”

“The eyes of the world are upon the peoples of this region as they struggle to achieve a just and lasting solution to conflicts that have caused so much suffering,” he told Israeli leaders who met him at the airport in Tel Aviv.

The number of Christians living in the Middle East has dropped, a change that greatly concerns the Vatican. At mass on Sunday in Jordan, Benedict called on those still living in the region to help promote peace and reconciliation and “counter ways of thinking which justify taking innocent lives.”

The pope’s pilgrimage will take him to the Western wall, and the Temple Mount or Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem, and to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus.