Pope Benedict XVI has pledged to remember the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust.
The German-born pontiff said the cry of the victims “still echoes in our hearts” as he paid his respects during an emotional ceremony at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem. He visited the site at the start of a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.
But Yad Vashem officials gave the speech a lukewarm response.
Benedict’s earlier calls for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland also put a dampener on the high-profile trip, just the second official visit by a Pope, by putting him at odds with Israel’s new government. He was also seeking to repair strains created by revoking the excommunication of a bishop who denied the genocide took place and his defence of the Vatican’s wartime legacy.
Benedict, who briefly spent time in the Hitler Youth corps as a teenager, shook hands and spoke to six elderly Holocaust survivors and rekindled Yad Vashem’s eternal flame before addressing the audience.
“I have come to stand in silence before this monument erected to honour the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah,” he said, his voice shaking, as he used the Hebrew word for Holocaust. “They lost their lives, but they will never lose their names.
“As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood,” he added, saying the Church is “working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of man again”.
In an inscription at the visitor’s book at the memorial, he quoted from the Book of Lamentations: “His mercies are not spent.”
Benedict is using a week-long pilgrimage to the Holy Land to reach out to both Muslims and Jews. He spent three days in neighbouring Jordan before arriving in Israel.
While Israel’s relations with the Vatican have improved greatly since Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, visited in 2000, differences remain — none deeper than the widespread belief in Israel that the Vatican did not do enough to halt the Nazi genocide of European Jewry.
In a series of public appearances, including the Yad Vashem ceremony, he did not delve into any of the Holocaust-related controversies between Israel and the Vatican.
Israel and the Vatican are at odds over the legacy of Second World War pontiff Pius XII, a candidate for sainthood. Benedict has referred to Pius as a great churchman, and in September he praised what he called Pius’s “courageous and paternal dedication” in trying to save Jews by quiet diplomacy.
At Yad Vashem, Benedict did not visit the main part of the museum, where a photo caption says Pius did not protest at the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely “neutral position”.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of Yad Vashem’s board of directors and a former chief rabbi of Israel, called the speech important but said he also found it lacking.
“There is a clear difference between ‘killed’ and ‘murdered’. There is a difference between saying millions in the Holocaust and saying six million. The word six was not said,” Mr Lau, a Holocaust survivor, told Israel TV. “There was certainly no apology here.”