ROME | Vatican officials said Sunday that Pope Benedict XVI will cancel a visit to Israel because of an escalating dispute over whether the late Pope Pius XII - criticized for doing too little to save Jews from the Nazis during World War II - should be beatified.
Mushrooming tension between the Holy See and the Jewish state over Benedict’s defense of the reputation of Pius reached the boiling point with a statement by the priest who heads the Vatican office that is examining a request to beatify the World War II-era pontiff, a move that would place him on the path to sainthood.
At the heart of the latest dispute is a caption under a portrait of Pope Pius at Israel’s Holocaust museum that claims the pope did not do enough to save Jews from the Nazis.
“Benedict XVI is not going to Israel because of a caption in the Yad Vashem museum against Pacelli,” said Father Peter Gumpel. Pacelli was Pius’s family name before he was elected pope.
The Vatican has indicated its displeasure over the text of the caption under a portrait of Pius hanging at the museum, saying it does not take into account the Jews in Rome who were saved by the church on specific orders of Pius. But an Israeli statement insisted that “the role of Pius XII remains controversial.”
“In the context of the open and good dialogue with the Catholic Church, we cannot close our eyes in the face of the controversial historical role of Pius XII and his behavior in the days in which thousands of Jews were sent daily to be massacred.”
The caption accuses Pius of having “abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews” and that he “maintained his neutral position throughout the war.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres urged the Vatican on Sunday not to let the contentious reference to Pius stand in the way of the pope’s visit. But Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi urged museum officials to make “a new, objective and in-depth review” of the caption, the Associated Press reported.
The spat is fast developing into a controversy between the Vatican and the Jews comparable to the furor that the conservative Benedict unwittingly set off in the Muslim world with a speech delivered in the German city of Regensberg, Vatican watchers say. In the September 2006 lecture, Benedict quoted the 14th-century views of a Byzantine emperor, who asserted that the Islamic prophet Muhammad brought only evil to the world.
If the tension between Israel and the German pope persists, it risks undoing the historic rapprochement between the church and the Jews, which is regarded by most Vatican observers as one of the major achievements of Pope John Paul II, Benedict’s Polish predecessor.
Israel’s Vatican emissary said Sunday that the Jewish state has renewed an invitation to the Pope to visit the Holy Land despite differences over the possible beatification.
“The invitation to Pope Benedict XVI to come [to Israel] has been renewed and remains,” Ambassador Motti Levy told state-run radio. “Our differences can be reduced, but the date of the visit has not yet been set.”
Benedict raised Israeli hackles last month when he praised the memory of Pius XII on the 50th anniversary of his death and said he would like to see him beatified.
The Vatican on Saturday urged both Roman Catholics and Jews to stop what it said was applying “pressure” to the pope over whether or not he should promote the sainthood of his Nazi-era predecessor. Pius reigned from 1939 to 1958.
Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper reported Sunday what it said was new research into British and American archives tending to reinforce Israeli criticism of Pius.
Italian researchers Giuseppe Casarubbea and Mario J. Cereghino quoted British wartime ambassador to the Vatican D’Arcy Osborne as reporting Pius giving no importance to a roundup of 1,000 Roman Jews who were sent to Auschwitz.