Holocaust group to lobby pope over Pius sainthood

VATICAN CITY Fri Nov 7, 2008 1:33pm EST

Pope Benedict XVI views the crypt of Pius XII in the grotto of Saint Peter's Basilica, on the 50th anniversary of his death at the Vatican October 9, 2008. REUTERS/Osservatore Romano

Pope Benedict XVI views the crypt of Pius XII in the grotto of Saint Peter's Basilica, on the 50th anniversary of his death at the Vatican October 9, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Osservatore Romano

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Holocaust survivors and their descendants will lobby Pope Benedict to stop the process of making his wartime predecessor Pius XII a saint, saying beatifying him would be a tragedy for Catholic-Jewish relations.

The plan, involving appealing to the pope by lobbying his ambassadors around the world, was approved Thursday night in New York and will be announced formally Monday, a leader of an organization spearheading it told Reuters Friday.

"Beatifying Pius XII would be a tragedy for Catholic-Jewish relations, which have become so warm in recent years," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants (AGJHSD).

Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked silently behind the scenes and helped save many Jews from certain death during World War Two.

Steinberg, who is also executive director emeritus of the World Jewish Congress, said survivors' groups around the world would seek meetings with Vatican nuncios (ambassadors) to express their concern.

This is believed to be the first time Holocaust survivors have organized a global campaign to lobby the Vatican. The American group has about 60,000 members.

Thursday, Pope Benedict's deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said Jewish accusations were "outrageous" and that no one could tell the Vatican whether Pius should be made a saint.

"Insofar as the historical record shows, Pius was not 'Hitler's Pope', but he was the 'silent pope'," said Steinberg, 55, who is the son of Holocaust survivors.

CRY FROM THE HEART

"This is a cry from the heart. Other Jewish leaders have spoken about this but, because we are speaking on behalf of survivors, we have to be more direct. We feel the pain in a greater way," Steinberg said by telephone from New York.

Differences over what Pius's wartime role have haunted Catholic-Jewish ties for decades. The Vatican has shown signs of irritability recently as some Catholics have pushed for the Pope to expedite his sainthood process and some Jews want it frozen pending the opening of Holy See archives in about seven years.

At issue is whether Benedict should let Pius proceed on the road to sainthood by signing a decree recognizing his "heroic virtues." This would clear the way for beatification, the last step before sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church.

Benedict has so far not signed the decree, approved last year by the Vatican's saint-making department, opting instead for what the Holy See has called a period of reflection.

Jews have asked the Vatican to open up its archives for the wartime period to qualified scholars.

"I don't exclude that the archives will include some exculpatory document, but Pius did not raise his voice," Steinberg said.

"We also want to draw attention to the difference between Pius XII and Pope John XXIII (his successor). While Pius remained silent, John, when he was a Vatican diplomat in Turkey, helped save Jews and sent reports to Pius on their plight. We think John was saintly," he added.

The Vatican says while Pius did not speak out against the Holocaust, he worked behind the scenes to help Jews because direct intervention would have worsened the situation by prompting retaliation by Hitler.

It says Pius saved several hundred thousand Jewish lives by ordering churches and convents throughout Italy to hide Jews and instructing Vatican diplomats in Europe to give Jews false passports.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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