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Europe: Vatican Repents Failures During Holocaust

Prague, 17 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Roman Catholic Church has made public its long-awaited pronouncement on the Holocaust, formally expressing regret for what it termed "the errors and failures" of Catholics who "were not strong enough to raise their voices in protest."

The 14-page document titled, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," was issued yesterday by the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Its publication culminated more than ten years of preparatory work.

The length of time required to put the document together reflects on both the complexity of the problem and its sensitivity in the Church's relations with Jews. It also suggests that the Church may have found it difficult to secure unanimity of views within its own ranks. Pope John Paul II touched on those issues, expressing hope in a cover letter to the commission's president, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, that the document will "help to heal the wounds of past misunderstandings and injustices."

But the document remains controversial, particularly in two important aspects. One concerns the way it views the extent to which the Church as an institution and its teachings contributed to the growth of anti-Semitism in general, and the Nazi terror in particular. The other relates to the document's assessment of the role played by Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust.

"The history of relations between Jews and Christians is a tormented one," the document says, adding that "the balance of those relations over 2,000 years has been quite negative."

Indeed, this history has been punctuated by numerous acts of persecution of Jews. It started in earnest some 17 centuries ago, when the Church condemned Jews at the Council of Nicaea in 325 as heretics, and continued with recurring edicts restricting position and status of Jews. In the Middle Ages, Jews were forcibly expelled from various European countries, including France and Spain.

The Church's document acknowledges these injustices, attributing them to "unfortunate" historical attitudes of "anti-Judaism" within the Church, but it makes a distinction between those attitudes and "anti-Semitism."

The document says: "We cannot ignore the difference which exists between anti-Semitism, based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the Church on the unity of the human race and on the equal dignity of all races and peoples, and the long-standing sentiments of mistrust and hostility that we call anti-Judaism, of which, unfortunately Christians also have been guilty."

More specifically, the document goes on to say, "the Shoah was the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime. Its anti-Semitism had its roots outside of Christianity and, in pursuing its aims, it did not hesitate to oppose the Church and persecute her members also."

But the vital question of a possible impact of the Catholic Church's anti-Jewish traditions on the emergence and expansion of anti-Semitism remains unanswered. "A response would need to be given case by case," says the document, adding "to do this, however, it is necessary to know what precisely motivated people in particular situations."

The Catholic bishops of France, Germany, Poland and several other countries have already issued statements expressing regret for having failed to protest more energetically the genocide of Jews by the Nazis. The German bishops even spoke of the Church's "co-responsibility."

The Vatican document asks whether Catholics gave some assistance to those being persecuted, and in particular to the persecuted Jews during the Holocaust. The document says, yes, "many did, but others did not," asserting that "for Christians, this heavy burden of conscience of their brothers and sisters during the Second World War must be a call for penitence." But this concerns selected members of the Church rather than the Church as a spiritual institution.

And the document strongly defends Pope Pius XII as having "personally or through his representatives saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives" during the Holocaust.

But in the opinion of many current Jewish leaders and numerous historians, Pope Pius XII failed to speak out, or act in public, against the genocide. Indeed, in the eyes of many, the mere "personal" or private actions in saving the Jewish victims of the Nazi terror could hardly be regarded as significant on the part of the spiritual leader of the Church as a whole. And these critics emphasize that the Pius not only failed to condemn the Nazi terror, the Nazi leaders and the Nazi policies but also failed to prevent the deportation of Jews from Rome itself.

Moreover, there have long been allegations that many Nazi officials, including perpetrators of massive crimes, were helped after the war by Vatican officials and Catholic clergy to escape prosecution. There is no clear and public sign that Pope Pius XII ever tried to stop those actions. The document is conspicuous by its silence on a possible church role in helping leading Nazis escape prosecution.

The document presents itself both as a formal "act of repentance" for the past injustices and a "binding commitment" to ensure that "evil does not prevail" in the future.

Following the publication of the Vatican document, criticism has been expressed by Jewish religious leaders both in Israel and elsewhere. But these critical voices have also been accompanied by expressions of hope for the continuing improvement in the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and Jews.

The document expressed the Vatican's hope that "the awareness of past sins will be turned into a firm resolve to build a new future in which there will be no more anti-Judaism among the Christians of anti-Christian sentiment among Jews, but rather a shared mutual respect."

The document is regarded as a base for teaching in Church seminars around the world. If this happens, it would indeed mark a major step forward in finding both understanding and respect between the two religious groups.