By Philip Pullella,

VATICAN CITY – The Vatican on Wednesday tried to assure Jews that its decision to move wartime Pius XII closer to sainthood was a recognition of his Christian faith and not a definitive historical judgment on his papacy.

Chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi issued a lengthy statement explaining the move in a clear bid to try to assuage critical Jews and to lower the temperature of the debate ahead of the pope’s first visit to Rome’s synagogue next month.

World Jewish groups reacted angrily on Saturday when Pope Benedict approved a decree recognizing the “heroic virtues” of Pius, accused by some Jews of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust.

Lombardi said the “heroic virtues” decree “essentially regards the witness of Christian life, his intense relationship with God and his continuing search for evangelical perfection”.

The two remaining steps to sainthood are beatification and canonisation, which could take many years.

Rome’s Jewish community leaders were shocked by the weekend move and demanded a clarification, which Lombardi’s statement tried to offer.

The timing of the pope’s decision, which a number of world Jewish leaders called insensitive, had cast a cloud over the German pope’s plan to visit the synagogue, with some fearing it risked being cancelled. But it now seems set to go ahead.

Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of not doing enough to help Jews, a charge the Vatican denies.

The Vatican maintains that Pius worked quietly behind the scenes because direct interventions might have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in Europe. Many Jews have rejected this position.

Wednesday’s Vatican statement said Pius’s intention was “to do the best possible” and that his “concern for the fate of Jews . . . was documented and recognized by many Jews” after the war.

Pope Benedict has come under pressure from Catholics and Jews over the possible sainthood of Pius, who led the Catholic church during a period when the current pope was a teenager and young priest.

The Vatican statement said the pope’s decision to sign the “heroic virtues” decree “should not in any way be seen as an act hostile to the Jewish people” or an obstacle to Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

The American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants said the statement had not assuaged what it called Jewish outrage and consternation.

“Representing those of us who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, the pain of the silence of Pius XII during the Second World War cannot be eased by blithe indifference to the historical record. We suffered in his silence,” it said.

Since his election in 2005 Benedict has visited synagogues in his native Germany and in the United States.

But his visit to the synagogue on the Tiber is significant because relations between the Vatican and Rome’s Jewish community