Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Vatican defends World War II pope

By VICTOR L. SIMPSON, Associated Press

The Vatican stepped up its defense Tuesday of Pope Pius XII, with its No. 2 official decrying that the World War II pontiff was the victim of a "black legend" claiming he remained largely silent in the face of the Holocaust.

Less than a month after the Vatican took a new step to put Pius on the road to sainthood, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone said that historical research and thousands of personal stories prove the pontiff acted behind the scenes to save the lives of Jews and other victims.

Pius "is the victim of a 'black legend,' which has spread to a point that it is difficult to change it, even though documents and witnesses have widely proven its complete inconsistency," the Vatican secretary of state said at a presentation of a book about the wartime pope.

Bertone acknowledged that Pius was "cautious" in his denunciations of Nazi persecutions, but said that any bolder public moves would have only angered the Axis powers, accelerating the extermination of Jews while endangering the Vatican and Europe's Catholics.

"Popes do not speak while thinking of creating for themselves a favorable image for posterity," Bertone said. "They hold dear to their heart the fate of men and women of flesh and blood, not the praise of historians."

Last month, a panel of bishops and cardinals at the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Sainthood approved a declaration on Pius' virtues, passing the dossier to Pope Benedict XVI. If Benedict signs the document, it will be the first major step toward possible beatification for Pius. The Vatican would then have to confirm a miracle attributed to Pius' intercession for him to be beatified, and a second miracle for him to be made a saint.

The move came shortly after a public spat between the Holy See and Israel over the pontiff's wartime conduct. In April, the Vatican ambassador to Israel threatened to boycott an annual memorial service at Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem because of a photo caption at the museum that said Pius did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position."

The envoy later reversed his decision and attended the event, but the incident frayed the Vatican's sensitive relations with Israel and with Jews, many of whom share in the criticism of Pius.

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