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11 May, 2009 22:33

Will Jewish community grant Benediction to the Pope?

A sacred controversy is brewing as Pope Benedict XVI has arrived in Israel on Monday, May 11. His first day's itinerary includes a visit to the national Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

The Pope has upset many in the Jewish world with his references to the Holocaust. That’s why when he touches down in Israel this week, exodus refugee Eli Agulnik and other survivors will be monitoring his every word.

The Pope’s wartime connections – the fact that he is German, and was a member of the Hitler Youth – is not something Eli can easily forget.

“It’s not comfortable for any Jew, but I think he made it up by deserting. He was in the German army too, and he deserted, and he understood it was a mistake, but in many things he leaves me, as an Israeli and Jew, with a bad taste in my mouth,” says Agulnik.

Pope Benedict has also pardoned a Bishop known to be a Holocaust denier. The Pope later said he wasn't aware of the British Bishop's views.

“From a public relations point of view, it was a fiasco. Nevertheless, it led to a greater clarification of the information, of checks and balances, and of the procedures under which these whole negotiations will be conducted between the Vatican and the society,” says Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of Jewish Committee for inter-religious consultations.

Pope Benedict also sparked controversy when he defended the memory of wartime Pope Pius XII. Israeli scholars believe Pius did not do enough to help save Jews, and kept a largely neutral position even after news of the Nazi extermination camps reached the Vatican. But Pope Benedict wants him to be named a saint.

The pope's first stop in Israel is at the national Holocaust museum – for some, that will go a long way toward healing the rift.

“The Vatican of course was a neutral entity during the holocaust, was not involved in murdering people, and it was involved in rescue to a certain extent. Having the Pope come here to Yad Vashem puts those issues on the table,” says Doctor Robert Rozett from Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.

But a British historian and the official biographer of Winston Churchill, Sir Martin Gilbert, believes Pope Pius was a hero, and Benedict should aknowledge it.

“It is in his hands to open the Vatican archives, and I believe that he does intend to do this, and perhaps he will make some announcement about it while he is here, so that scholars can see exactly what Pius the 12th did in the war,” says Sir Martin Gilbert.

Benedict’s intention to enter the Al Aqsa Mosque – something the previous Pope did not do – is raising eyebrows among Israelis who are also unhappy with his Palestinian itinerary.

One of the proposed stops on the Pope’s visit is the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. But it’s not without controversy. Many say that by coming there, the Pope will be drawing attention to Palestinian suffering, and giving weight to the Palestinian right of return.

Although the Pope has reiterated his commitment to Jewish-Catholic relations, observers are worried he’ll offend someone somewhere during this trip.

Many see Benedict as a German professor – more comfortable in an ivory tower of books and ideas – than among the masses.