In a wall of the tiny museum at Rome’s majestic central synagogue hangs a copy of the 1555 edict of Pope Paul IV that confined the Jews to the ghetto, branding them as killers of Christ.

The display stands as permanent reminder of the tortured two-millennia history of Jewish-Catholic relations – an estrangement that only in the past 50 years has begun to heal.

Now the pope is about to visit Israel and plans to stop at Judaism’s holiest place, the Western Wall, and pay his respects at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Benedict XVI is the third pope to visit the Holy Land, but he carries an especially heavy load of historical and psychological baggage.

The steady progress in Jewish-Catholic relations is marred by continuing controversy over whether the Vatican did enough to save Jews from Hitler in World War II. Benedict himself is German, and like many youngsters of the time, served in the Hitler Youth movement. He stirred uproar by his recent reconciliation with a rebel bishop who turned out to be a Holocaust denier.

Still, that the 82-year-old pope is making the trip at all is a testament to the ability of Catholics and Jews to overcome the recent disputes. Benedict is recognized in Israel as a friend and supporter of the Jews and can expect a warm welcome when he arrives in Jerusalem on Monday during his weeklong pilgrimage to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“My primary intention is to visit the places made holy by the life of Jesus, and, to pray at them for the gift of peace and unity for your families, and all those for whom the Holy Land and the Middle East is home,” Benedict said last week in a message addressed to Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians.

Benedict has already had to tread carefully during the first leg of his Holy Land trip to predominantly Muslim Jordan. Three years ago, the pope angered many in the Muslim world when he quoted a Medieval text that characterized some of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad’s teachings as “evil and inhuman.”

After arriving on Friday, Benedict said he has “deep respect” for Islam. After visiting the country’s largest mosque on Saturday, the religious adviser to Jordan’s King Abdullah II thanked Benedict for expressing regret that his comments offended Muslims.

Benedict goes to Israel on Monday, and his visit there highlights how much has changed in the 45 years since Pope Paul VI became the first pontiff to visit the Jewish state.

The Israel leg of Paul’s pilgrimage was called unofficial, and during the 11-hour stop he never publicly mentioned Israel by name. The Vatican had no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state, and the pilgrimage was meant to unify Christians, not win Israel’s friendship.

But Paul also played a vital role in the momentous changes that would follow. During his papacy, the Vatican issued a 1965 document that rejected the notion that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ.

Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, a Pole who survived the Nazi invasion of his country, was the first pope to visit the Rome synagogue, where he referred to Jews as “our older brothers in faith.”

Seven years later, in 1993, he established formal diplomatic relations with Israel and made an official visit to the Jewish state in 2000, leaving a handwritten note at the Western Wall apologizing for Christian anti-Semitism.

But relations have been sorely tested during Benedict’s 4-year-old pontificate: The most damaging dispute came when the pope, seeking to end a schism with ultra-orthodox Catholics, lifted the excommunication of a bishop who denies the Holocaust.

For their part, Catholic leaders were upset over the more than 1,300 Palestinians killed during Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, while Israel took offense when a Vatican cardinal likened Gaza to a “big concentration camp.”

Still in debate is the allegation that Pius XII failed to speak out forcefully against Hitler’s Final Solution. Benedict has referred to Pius as a great churchman, and in September, he praised what he called Pius’ “courageous and paternal dedication” in trying to save Jews by quiet diplomacy.

Many Jews are outraged at a 25-year-long effort to declare Pius a saint, and when Benedict visits Yad Vashem, he will skip the museum that displays a picture of Pius with a caption saying he did not protest the genocide and kept largely “neutral.” The Vatican criticized the display.

Rabbi David Rosen, one of Israel’s leading voices in interfaith relations, said: “There has never been as much dialogue between the Vatican and the Jewish people as there is today” and that Benedict’s visit reinforces that dialogue.

An emotional high point of the four-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories will come at Yad Vashem, when the Bavarian-born pope meets with Holocaust survivors.

“I hope that this meeting will bring some kind of peace between Jews and Christians,” said Edward Mosberg, 83, one of the survivors invited to the gathering. “I don’t know if I will be allowed to say anything to him, but if I will I will tell him my story.”

Mosberg, whose entire family was murdered by the Nazis in death camps in his native Poland, married another survivor, raised three daughters and now has six grandchildren. He said he bears no ill will toward the pope.

“I am not looking at him as a German pope. I am looking at him as a human and as a pope,” he said. “Nothing can bring my family back, but maybe this will help the future generations.”


Simpson reported from Rome, Heller from Jerusalem.

AP-ES-05-09-09 1313EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.