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POPE-SYNAGOGUE Aug-19-2005 (1,000 words) With photos. xxxi

In synagogue, pope recalls Holocaust as 'darkest period' in Germany

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

COLOGNE, Germany (CNS) -- In a visit to a synagogue in his native Germany, Pope Benedict XVI recalled with sorrow the Nazi persecution of the Jews as "the darkest period of German and European history."

The pope warned of new signs of anti-Semitism today and said the Catholic Church has a duty to remember the Holocaust and to teach its lessons to younger generations who did not witness the "terrible events" that took place before and during World War II.

Toward the end of his Aug. 19 speech, he said Christians and Jews have to respect each other and added, off-the-cuff, "and love each other."

The pope spoke to some 500 Jewish representatives in Cologne, in a synagogue destroyed during the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom and rebuilt in 1959. The Jewish community in Cologne is the oldest in Europe north of the Alps and was decimated during World War II.

The 78-year-old pope was warmly welcomed as he entered the complex, pausing to pray silently before a memorial to Holocaust victims. After the singing of Psalm 23 -- "The Lord is my shepherd" -- an elder blew a long blast on the ram's horn, or shofar, a Jewish ritual announcing an important event.

At the end of the service, the sung blessing of "Sim Shalom" implored God to grant peace and goodness: "Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of your face."

The hourlong visit marked only the second time a modern pope has entered a Jewish place of worship. Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to Rome's synagogue in 1986.

In Cologne, Pope Benedict began his talk with the Hebrew words, "Shalom lachem!" ("Peace to you!"). He emphasized that he wanted to follow his predecessor's lead and "continue on the path toward improved relations and friendship with the Jewish people."

As a young man, Pope Benedict was forced to join the Hitler Youth program, and he served in the German army during the war before deserting his unit. In his talk, he did not mention his personal experiences, but described how the Nazi rise to power scarred his homeland and devastated Jewish communities.

"In the 20th century, in the darkest period of German and European history, an insane racist ideology, born of neopaganism, gave rise to the attempt, planned and systematically carried out by the regime, to exterminate European Jewry," he said.

The pope said the victims of this "unspeakable and previously unimaginable crime" numbered several thousand in Cologne alone.

"The holiness of God was no longer recognized, and consequently contempt was shown for the sacredness of human life," he said.

Pope Benedict noted that this year marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, "in which millions of Jews -- men, women and children -- were put to death in the gas chambers and ovens."

Like Pope John Paul, the pontiff said, he wanted to bow his head before those who died and remind the world that those tragic events must "never cease to rouse consciences."

The pope was careful to distinguish between the Nazi attempt at annihilation of the Jews and Christian-Jewish relations, which have had their own "complex and painful" history, he said.

Forty years ago, he said, the Second Vatican Council opened up new prospects of dialogue with Jews, recognizing the common roots and spiritual heritage shared by members of both faiths. Again quoting Pope John Paul, he said that "whoever meets Jesus Christ meets Judaism."

The pope underlined the church's commitment to transmit its teachings against religious discrimination to younger generations, in formal catechesis and in every aspect of church life.

"It is a particularly important task since today, sadly, we are witnessing the rise of new signs of anti-Semitism and various forms of general hostility to foreigners," he said.

As for the future course of Christian-Jewish dialogue, the pope said: "Much remains to be done. We must come to know one another much more and much better."

He said both religions need to work toward a "shared interpretation of disputed historical questions," an apparent reference to frequent Jewish complaints about alleged inaction by top church leaders, including Pope Pius XII, during the Holocaust. The Vatican has strongly rejected the accusations.

But above all, the pope said, Jews and Christians should take up theological questions, not glossing over differences but facing them with respect.

Followers of both religions should also give common witness on such basic issues as the sacredness of human life, family values, social justice and peace in the world, he said.

Together, he said, they should help show young people in particular that "the Ten Commandments are not a burden, but a signpost showing the path leading to a successful life." The pope received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

In welcoming talks, local Jewish leaders called the papal visit an important sign that the bridge-building begun by Pope John Paul would continue.

As the pope sat and listened attentively, Rabbi Natanael Teitelbaum related that the mother of Abraham Lehrer, president of the Jewish community, was in attendance. Her arm still bears the tattooed number given her in a concentration camp, he said.

"She never could have imagined that one day her son would be greeting the pope in the synagogue of Cologne," he said.

The pope greeted the woman personally at the end of the encounter.

In his greeting to the pontiff, Lehrer praised the pope for having opened the archives of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he headed the congregation.

Lehrer then suggested it would help dialogue if the Vatican opened all its archives from the World War II period, a request Jewish groups have made repeatedly in recent years.

The community presented the pope with a shofar before he left. The pope gave the synagogue a medieval Old Testament, a copy of a manuscript kept in the Vatican Library.


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