Pope Benedict XVI billed his Middle East tour as a “bridge for peace,” but it has run into troubled waters. Following negative remarks by Israeli secular and religious leaders following the Pope’s emotional but neutral remarks at the Yad VaShem Holocaust Museum and Memorial Center Monday evening, the Vatican issued a sharp denial that the Catholic leader was in the Hitler Youth movement as a teenager.
Contradicting the Pope’s own admission that he was an involuntary member of the pro-Hitler group, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi claimed at a news conference that the pope was a member of an auxiliary air defense squad. It "had nothing to do with Nazism or Nazi ideology," and he “never, never was a member of the Hitler Youth, which was a movement of fanatical volunteers,” the spokesman declared.
The German-born pope also did not offer any apology for his Nazi past. “The pope was never in the Hitler Jugend… and he should not have to apologize for being forced to wear Wehrmacht uniform.” according to Lombardi.
The pope was never in the Hitler Jugend… and he should not have to apologize for being forced to wear Wehrmacht uniform.
Yad VaShem Chairman Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel and a Holocaust survivor, responded to the Pope’s remarks by noting that he omitted any direct reference to Hitler or Nazis and stated that “millions” were killed without using the more descriptive brutal term” murdered.”
The Vatican’s remarks did not omit the inciting anti-Israeli outburst by a Muslim cleric before the Pope Monday night. The spokesman stated, “In a meeting dedicated to dialogue, this intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be.” International media dutifully reported and then sparingly referred to the outburst by Sheikh Taysir Tamimi at the interfaith conference at the Notre Dame church in eastern Jerusalem.
Speaking in Arabic, the sheikh charged that the Israeli “occupation” of eastern Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria was an excuse to murder children. He called on Pope Benedict to “pressure the Israeli government to stop its aggression against the Palestinian people.”
The Jerusalem grand mufti, Mohammed Hussein, handed the pope a letter stating that peace is dependent on “the end of occupation and with our Palestinian people regaining their freedom.”
The papal visit was implicitly political from the moment the pope landed at Ben Gurion Airport from Jordan Monday. At the Vatican’s request, Israel removed its national flag from the welcoming ceremony while Pope Benedict implicitly called for the establishment of a new Palestinian Authority state.
“I plead with all those responsible to explore every possible avenue in the search for a just resolution of the outstanding difficulties, so that both peoples may live in peace in a homeland of their own within secure and internationally recognized borders," he stated.
The pope’s visit the rest of the week will take him to Bethlehem and the Galilee city of Sakhnin, where the town mayor earlier this year led an anti-Israel rally during the Operation Cast Lead counterterrorist campaign in Gaza.
Officials are expected to try to ensure that there will be no repetition of Monday night’s outburst by Sheikh Tamimi.