Vatican ambassador to boycott Holocaust memorial in row over photo
Rory McCarthy in Jerusalem
Friday April 13, 2007
Monsignor Antonio Franco has called on Israel's Holocaust museum to change a picture caption which criticises Pope Pius XII. Photograph: AP
Monsignor Antonio Franco, who arrived in Jerusalem last year, has called on Israel's official Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, to change a picture caption which criticises the pope for failing to condemn the deportation and mass killing of Jews under the Nazi regime. Earlier this month he wrote to turn down a formal invitation to Sunday's torch-lighting remembrance ceremony.
In turn, the Holocaust museum said it was "shocked" at Monsignor Franco's decision to stay away from the event and called on the Vatican to open up its archives for further examination of the troubled history of Pius XII.
The dispute revolves around a paragraph-long picture caption of Pius XII that was installed when the newly-designed Yad Vashem museum was opened in 2005. The previous Vatican ambassador sent a letter of complaint about the text a year ago and now Monsignor Franco has complained again.
The text notes that Pius XII's reaction to the Holocaust is controversial and states: "When he was elected Pope in 1939, he shelved a letter against racism and anti-semitism that his predecessor had prepared. Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing." The description also says Pius XII chose not to sign a December 1942 Allied declaration condemning the extermination of Jews and did not intervene when Jews were being deported from Rome to Auschwitz.
It is not the first criticism of Pius XII, who has long been regarded as one of the Catholic church's most controversial leaders. In the past, critics have dismissed him as "Hitler's Pope" for failing to speak out against the Holocaust and suggested his silence was aimed at averting a Communist takeover in Europe. However, others have sought to exonerate him, arguing instead that he was trying to defend a Catholic minority in Germany from the Nazis and suggesting he should be fast-tracked for canonisation.
Monsignor Franco, an Italian who has been a Vatican diplomat for 35 years, accepted there was debate and disagreement about the part played by the Pope during the second world war, but said he opposed the wording of the text at Yad Vashem.
"I consider this picture in that place and the caption that accompanies it unfair and something that disturbs my feelings and the feelings of Catholics all over the world. It does not correspond to the truth," he told the Guardian today.
"My approach is not polemic," he said. "It is an approach of dialogue and research and discussion and to see if perhaps it could be presented in another way."
Monsignor Franco, 70, defended Pius XII's silence over the Holocaust. "It was not really silence, it was a policy taken to avoid worsening the situation," he said. "When there were public statements and declarations there would be a huge number of people who were simply eliminated. Repression was the response to any kind of public position taken."
Yad Vashem stood by its text, although it said it was "prepared to continue examining the issue". It also called on the Vatican to open up its archives of documents relating to Pius XII.
"Yad Vashem is shocked by, and regrets, that the Vatican's delegate to Israel has chosen not to respect the memory of the Holocaust and not to participate in the official ceremony in which the state of Israel and the Jewish people join in memory of the victims," Iris Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for the museum, said in a statement.
"The Holocaust history museum presents the historical truth on Pope Pius XII as it is known to scholars today," she said. "It is unacceptable to use diplomatic pressure when dealing with historical research."
Relations between Israel and the Vatican have been fraught for years. Full diplomatic relations were only established in 1993 and there have been continuing disagreements over the taxing of church property in and around Jerusalem. Last month Israeli government officials postponed at the last minute a trip to the Vatican for what would have been the first fully attended meeting of a joint commission on church-state issues for five years.