Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVIIsrael news photo: Flash 90

The president of the Jewish community in Rome greeted visiting Pope Benedict XVI with sharp words Sunday, criticizing Pope Pius XII for inaction during the Holocaust, saying that his “silence still hurts as an undelivered gesture.” The harsh remarks by the Jewish leader, Riccardo Pacifici, were made at the start of the pontiff’s historic visit to the city’s main synagogue.

Pacifici pointedly added praise for Italian Catholics who sheltered Jews from the Nazi death machine, but he also stated, "A sign from the pope might not have stopped the trains of death, but it would have sent a signal, a word of consolation and human solidarity towards our brothers transported to the chimneys of Auschwitz."

Pope Benedict told listeners in the synagogue that the Vatican “provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way,” but he did not mention Pope Pius by name. The German-born Pope’s visit to the synagogue has sharply divided the 15,000-member Jewish community in Rome because of his moves to make Pope Pius a saint. 

The president of Italy's assembly of rabbis, Giuseppe Laras, boycotted the visit and charged that Pope Benedict has "weakened" ties between Catholics and Jews. The Israeli ambassador to the Vatican attended but noted, "Catholic anti-Judaism still exists.”

Bnei Akiva’s local representatives said they decided to participate after initial hesitation and followed the advice of Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, who said that the visit was a sign that Pope Benedict wanted to "continue the dialogue.” He advised Bnei Akiva that the pope should be “respected as a king.”

Applause greeted the pope as he entered the synagogue in the Old Jewish Ghetto where a 16th century pope ordered the Jews be confined. It is the first time a pope has visited the synagogue since Pope John Paul II visited it in 1986.

Pope Benedict, who will speak later in the day, said earlier on Sunday that his visit will be a "further step on the path of harmony and friendship" between Catholics and Jews.

Guard dogs and hundreds of policemen lined the approaches to the synagogue to prevent any disturbances.