ROME The first Jew to address a Vatican synod said on Monday that wartime Pope Pius XII should have done more to help Jews during the Holocaust.
Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen told Reuters he might have stayed away if he had known the major Church gathering coincided with ceremonies to honor Pius on the 50th anniversary of his death.
"We feel that the late pope (Pius) should have spoken up much more strongly than he did," Cohen, 80, said in an interview hours before he was due to address the gathering of Catholic bishops from around the world.
Cohen said that in his speech he planned to make an indirect reference to Jewish disappointment about Pius as well as an appeal to all religious leaders to denounce Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Last month Pope Benedict forcefully defended Pius, saying he "spared no effort" on behalf of Jews during World War II.
Some Jews maintain Pius did not do enough to save Jews while the Vatican says he worked behind the scenes to help because more direct intervention would have worsened the situation.
"He may have helped in secrecy many of the victims and many of the refugees but the question is 'could he have raised his voice and would it have helped or not?'" Cohen said.
"We, as the victims, feel yes. I am not empowered by the families of the millions of deceased to say 'we forget, we forgive,'" said Cohen, who is chief rabbi of Haifa in Israel.
Pius is one of the most difficult issues in Catholic-Jewish relations. On Thursday the Vatican marks the 50th anniversary of his death, Benedict celebrates a Mass in his memory and there will be a conference and photo show on his papacy next month.
"I did not know (the anniversary commemorations) happened during the same meeting. If I had known ... I might have refrained from coming because we feel that the pain is still here," Cohen said.
"I have to make it very clear that we, the rabbis, the leadership of the Jewish people, cannot as long as the survivors still feel painful agree that this leader of the Church in a time of crisis should be honored now. It is not our decision. It pains us. We are sorry it is being done," he said.
Cohen said only God knows if Pius spoke out enough against the Holocaust: "God is the judge ... he knows the truth."
Urged by historians to open up all its archives from World War II, the Vatican says some are closed for organizational reasons but that most of the significant documentation regarding Pius is already open to scholars.
Last year, the Vatican's saint-making department voted in favor of a decree recognizing Pius's "heroic virtues," a major hurdle in a long process toward possible sainthood that began in 1967. But Pope Benedict has so far not approved the decree.
Some Jewish groups say the Vatican should freeze the process of beatification but others say it is an internal Church matter.
Cohen said he would also appeal to the synod to denounce Ahmadinejad, who made another virulent anti-Israel speech last month at the United Nations. He said he would "appeal to the leaders of religion not to keep quiet, not to stand aside."
"He says that he wants to annihilate Israel and destroy it. The problem in the days of the Second World War was that people didn't believe that what Adolf Hitler was saying, he really meant to fulfill.
"Unfortunately we had the Holocaust and I am sure that if we have a painful memory it is because we don't feel that enough was done by the leadership of the religions in the world and other powerful leaders to stop it at that time. We expect them to do it today," he said.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)