An Italian Jewish leader told Pope Benedict on Sunday that his wartime predecessor Pius XII should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust to show solidarity with Jews being led to the "ovens of Auschwitz".
The comments, from the president of Rome's Jewish community Riccardo Pacifici, were made during the pope's first visit to Rome's synagogue and were some of the bluntest ever spoken by a Jewish leader in public to a pope.
"The silence of Pius XII before the Shoah, still hurts because something should have been done," Pacifici told the pope, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.
"Maybe it would not have stopped the death trains, but it would have sent a signal, a word of extreme comfort, of human solidarity, towards those brothers of ours transported to the ovens of Auschwitz," he said.
The visit, Benedict's third trip to a Jewish temple since becoming pope in 2005, has deeply split Italy's Jewish community after he advanced Pius XII on the path towards sainthood last month. Many Jews say Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, did not do enough to help Jews facing persecution by Nazi Germany.
In his speech to the pope, Pacifici paid tribute to the many Italian Catholics and priests and nuns during the war and said their efforts made Pius' "silence" hurt even more.
The Vatican maintains that Pius was not silent during the war, but chose to work behind the scenes, concerned that public intervention would have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in a wartime Europe dominated by Hitler.
'A word of extreme comfort.' Pope at Rome synagogue (Photo: AFP)
The pope defended his predecessor Pius, telling the audience at the synagogue that the Vatican worked quietly to save Jews from the Nazis during World War II.
While he didn't mention Pius by name, Benedict told Jewish leaders in the synagogue that the Vatican "itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way."
Benedict said Catholics acted courageously to save Jews even as their extermination "tragically reached as far as Rome."
Benedict was welcomed by Rome and international Jewish leaders as he arrived at the synagogue on the banks of the Tiber a short distance from the Vatican to begin the two-hour visit.
Before entering the temple, Jewish leaders showed the pope a plaque recalling the deportation of Rome Jews by Germans on Oct. 16, 1943 and another to a two-year-old boy killed in a gun and grenade attack on the synagogue in 1982.
The visit comes 24 years after Pope John Paul became the first pope in nearly 2,000 years to enter a synagogue and called Jews "our beloved elder brothers".
But reflecting the anger at Benedict in the Jewish community, at least one senior rabbi and one Holocaust survivor boycotted the visit.
Jewish groups reacted angrily last month when Benedict, a German who was drafted into the Hitler Youth and German army as a teenager during World War Two, approved a decree recognizing Pius's "heroic virtues".
The two remaining steps to sainthood are beatification and canonization, which could take many years. Jewish groups wanted the process frozen until more Vatican archives are opened to scholars.
Reuters, AP contributed to the report