With his landmark actions, Pope John Paul II strove throughout his 27-year papacy to overcome the tortured two-millennia history of Catholic-Jewish relations.
In a sign of appreciation for those efforts, some in the crowd at his beatification Sunday in St. Peters' Square will be Jews, including an Israeli minister who lost most of his family in the Holocaust but was hidden by a Belgium family who raised him as a Christian.
"We have a high respect, a unique respect for John Paul," Yossi Peled, a retired Israeli general, said Friday. "He is not just another pope for us."
The preparations for the beatification – the last formal step before possible sainthood – got under way in an official capacity Friday morning when John Paul's tomb was opened and his sealed casket removed for public viewing starting Sunday in St. Peter's Basilica.
The simple white marble tombstone that had marked John Paul's resting place in the grottoes underneath the basilica will be sent to a new church dedicated to him in Krakow, the Vatican said.
Eighty-seven official delegations have confirmed their presence at the ceremony, including 16 heads of state, six heads of government and members of five royal houses, Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
Peled, a minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, said the participation of an Israeli cabinet member at what is a religious event – the US delegation is limited to its ambassador to the Holy See and two former envoys – is a sign of the importance given to John Paul's accomplishments.
'Our older brothers in faith'
After decades of reluctance by the Vatican to recognize the Jewish state, the Polish-born John Paul forged formal relations in 1993, following it up with an official visit to Israel in 2000 that included stops at the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and at the Western Wall, where he left his note.
Earlier, John Paul, a Pole who survived the Nazi invasion of his country, became the first pope to visit a synagogue, where he referred to Jews as "our older brothers in faith."
Peled described the tragedy of his family, which had fled from Poland to Belgium to escape the Nazis, during a meeting with a small group of correspondents at the Israeli Embassy on Friday. Shortly before the family was seized, when he was six months old, his father entrusted him to a Belgian Catholic family.
"I grew up as a happy Christian boy," he said.
His mother was the only member of his family to survive Auschwitz and reclaimed him when he was eight.
In honor of John Paul's beatification and legacy, the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance is installing a permanent exhibit about John Paul, the center's founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, told The Associated Press in Rome.
John Paul "chartered a new course in the relations between the Catholic church and the Jewish people," Hier said in a phone interview. "No other pope did what he did to repair those relations."
The exhibit, which includes a film about the late pope, is being installed "in a very prime location" in the Los Angeles museum, the rabbi said, noting it will be located just across from the exhibit featuring the desk of the renowned late Nazi-hunter and Holocaust survivor, Simon Wiesenthal.
The German-born Pope Benedict XVI has kept up John Paul's momentum, touring the Holy Land in 2009 and visiting synagogues in Cologne, Germany, New York and Rome.
He also won praise from Jewish leaders with a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ in a recently released book. Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.
Still in debate is the possible beatification of World War II Pope Pius XII, accused by some of failing to speak out forcefully against Hitler's Final Solution. Both John Paul and Benedict have called Pius a great pope.
"Holocaust survivors are deeply moved by the beatification of Pope John Paul," Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement. Still "we feel compelled, however, on this occasion to renew our plea that steps toward the sainthood of Pius XII be frozen" until relevant documents in the Vatican archives are opened and examined, he said.
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