In Israel, Pope Remembers Holocaust Victims

On the first day of a visit to Israel, Pope Benedict XVI pledged Monday to remember the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Earlier, he called for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today in Jerusalem, the German-born pope, Benedict the XVI, paid homage to the six million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: As we stand here in silence, their cries still echoes in our hearts.

NORRIS: The pope visited Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial as part of his Holy Land pilgrimage.

As NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Jerusalem, the pope is hoping his trip will help mend fences between Catholics and Jews.

(Soundbite of a cantor)

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: As the voice of the cantor echoed through the memorial's Hall of Remembrance, Benedict stood in silent meditation. The pope was then introduced to six Holocaust survivors. He shook their hands and exchanged a few words with each. When he took the podium, Benedict said the victims of the Holocaust lost their lives, but not their names.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: It is indelibly etched into hearts of the loved ones. The surviving federal prisoners and all souls determine never to allow such an atrocity to disgrace mankind again.

POGGIOLI: Relations between the Vatican and Jews have been strained by the pope's decision earlier this year to rehabilitate a bishop who denies the Holocaust. And there's a continuing dispute over the role of the Catholic Church during World War II. Today, Benedict's speech was aimed at dispelling residual Jewish skepticism about his stand on Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: May the names of the victims never perish. May their suffering never be denied, belittled, or forgotten. And may all people of goodwill remain vigilant in rooting out from the heart of man, anything that could lead to tragedies such as this.

POGGIOLI: The visit to Yad Vashem was perhaps the most delicate part of the Israeli leg of the papal pilgrimage. Israelis have an indelible memory of Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, when he came nine years ago and prayed at the Western Wall, leaving a message atoning for Christian anti-Semitism. But on the streets of Jerusalem, sentiments were mixed.

Fifty-year-old Kuna(ph) said, this is a very controversial visit.

Ms. KUNA: In his past, there are not so many good things that he have done to the Jews. Although he has apologized on behalf of the church, I hope it will be, it will give us a peace. But I'm not sure it will do it. It will do something…

POGGIOLI: But 43-year-old architect Lofta Rothman(ph) is pleased with the papal visit.

Mr. LOFTA ROTHMAN (Architect): I think it's going to contribute to the relationship between Israel and the whole world, especially the European community. His visit today is a move that contributed to the knowledge of the Holocaust and the fight against those who discriminate the Holocaust in the publish(ph).

POGGIOLI: But some Jewish leaders were disappointed with the speech at Yad Vashem.

The chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Holocaust survivor Yisrael Lau, who was present at the Holocaust Memorial, said there was not one word of regret, compassion and expression of pain of the terrible tragedy of six million victims. And the Web site of the daily Yediot Ahronot had the headline, Where Was Your Expression of Sorrow?

Relations with Jews and a re-visitation of the past were not the only themes of this first day of the pope's visit. On his arrival at Tel Aviv Airport, the pope directly tackled the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, reiterating the Vatican's position in favor of a two-state solution. Benedict urged the two sides to explore every possible avenue to resolve their differences, so he said, both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders.

But the first day was marred at the end. At an interreligious event, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, an Islamic judge in the Palestinian territory, unexpectedly took the podium and unleashed a furious tirade against Israel. The pope, who was not provided with a translation, appeared ill at ease and the meeting was cut short before gifts could be exchanged.

The incident is a tangible sign of the delicate balancing act the pope is facing in a region of conflict and mistrust.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News. Jerusalem.

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