By Philip Pullella

ROME – An Italian Jewish leader told Pope Benedict Sunday that his wartime predecessor Pius XII should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust to show solidarity with Jews being led to the “ovens of Auschwitz.”

The comments, from the president of Rome’s Jewish community Riccardo Pacifici, were made during the pope’s first visit to Rome’s synagogue and were some of the bluntest ever spoken by a Jewish leader in public to a pope.

“The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah, still hurts because something should have been done,” Pacifici told the pope, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

“Maybe it would not have stopped the death trains, but it would have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, towards those brothers of ours transported to the ovens of Auschwitz,” he said.

The visit, Benedict’s third trip to a Jewish temple since becoming pope in 2005, has deeply split Italy’s Jewish community after he took the decision last month to advance Pius XII on the path towards sainthood.

Many Jews say Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, did not do enough to help Jews facing persecution by Nazi Germany.

In his speech to the pope, Pacifici paid tribute to Italian Catholics, priests and nuns during the war and said their efforts made Pius’ “silence” hurt even more.

The Vatican maintains that Pius was not silent during the war, but chose to work behind the scenes, concerned that public intervention would have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in a wartime Europe dominated by Hitler.

“HIDDEN AND DISCREET”

The pope, speaking after Pacifici, broadly stuck to this stance, although he did denounce the Holocaust as “the most extreme point on the path of hatred” and acknowledged that “unfortunately, many remained indifferent.”

“The Apostolic See itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way,” Benedict said, referring to the wartime record of the Catholic Church.

Benedict was welcomed by Jewish leaders from Rome and abroad as he arrived at the synagogue on the banks of the Tiber a short distance from the Vatican to begin the two-hour visit.

Before entering the temple, Jewish leaders showed the pope a plaque recalling the deportation of Rome Jews by Germans on October 16, 1943 and another to a two-year-old boy killed in a gun and grenade attack on the synagogue in 1982.

The visit comes 24 years after Pope John Paul became the first pope in nearly 2,000 years to enter a synagogue and called Jews “our beloved elder brothers.”

Benedict, a German who was drafted into the Hitler Youth and German army as a teen-ager during World War Two, has had a more difficult relationship with the Jewish community.

Many are still seething at his decision last year to start the rehabilitation process of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who denied the extent of the Holocaust.

And some in the Jewish community, including at least one senior rabbi and a Holocaust survivor, decided to boycott the Sunday synagogue visit after Benedict approved a decree recognising Pius’s “heroic virtues.”

The two remaining steps to sainthood are beatification and canonisation, which could take many years. Jewish groups wanted the process frozen until more Vatican archives are opened to scholars.