The course of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Israel has been decidedly less smooth than Catholic leaders might have hoped, perhaps prompting Vatican Spokesman Federico Lombardi's strongly-worded rejection of the criticism leveled at the Holy See following his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial on Monday.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday at a special press conference in Jerusalem, Lombardi accused the pontiff's detractors of having ruled against the pope's address before it was even delivered. He added that the pope had already denounced the acts perpetrated by the Nazis, and had also mentioned the number of those killed at the reception held at Ben Gurion Airport upon his arrival on Monday.
A main point of contention with the pope's choice of words was his decision not to touch on the prevalence of anti-Semitism in Christianity. He also used language deemed too soft, opting for 'killed' rather than 'murdered,' and there was not mention of the number of Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis. There was also some expectation to hear the pope talk of the Holocaust as a German national who had, albeit briefly, been a member of the Wehrmacht.
Lombardi, however, said that the pope had spoken of his German heritage in previous addresses, including during his historic visit to Auschwitz. He said that the pope should not have to "repeat all the time in every speech all the points that are being made."
'He was never in the Hitler Jugend'Lombardi also slammed what he called inaccuracies in the Israeli media's reports of the pope's biography, namely his service in the Hitler Youth.
"The pope was never in the Hitler Jugend, never never never," the Vatican spokesman said, later reiterating this point four more times during the press conference.
Lombardi insisted that members of Hitler Youth were volunteers, whereas the pope had been forced to join anti-aircraft troops near his hometown, which was subjected to Allied aerial raids. Lombardi said that pope had been studying theology at a seminar prior to his forced enlistment at the age of 16, and that towards the end of the war he was caught by American forces and abandoned the anti-aircraft auxiliary unit to return to his religious studies.
The pope did not choose to wear the uniform of the Wehrmacht, Lombardi said, and he should not have to apologize for what was forced upon him. Those who know the pope and who have read his biography know that he is not a militaristic man, the spokesman added.
Lombardi also criticized the behavior of Sheikh Taysir Tamimi at the interfaith conference at the Notre Dame church in east Jerusalem on Monday. “In a meeting dedicated to dialogue, this intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be,” he said in a written statement.