JERUSALEM – Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land veered into controversy Tuesday over his past when the Vatican, stung by Israeli criticism, denied and then acknowledged his membership in the Hitler Youth during World War II.
The conflicting accounts came in response to Israeli leaders who faulted the German pontiff for not acknowledging, in an address at the Holocaust Memorial on Monday, that he had witnessed Nazi terror as a conscript in the youth movement and the German army.
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s chief spokesman, felt compelled to declare that the pope, growing up as Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria, “never, never, never” belonged to the Hitler Youth. Later he backtracked, conceding what Ratzinger, then a Roman Catholic cardinal, told an interviewer for his 1997 biography: that his membership in the movement had been compulsory.
The confusion highlighted the Vatican’s defensiveness over Benedict’s words at the Yad Vashem memorial, where the 82-year-old pontiff declared that Hitler’s extermination of Jews must “never be denied, belittled or forgotten” but did not use the word Nazi or German. The Vatican’s bumbling response risked reopening a chapter of the pope’s life, discomforting to Israelis, which many had considered closed.
Benedict ignored the issue as he pressed ahead Tuesday with what he called a “journey of faith.” He was warmly welcomed as he traversed Jerusalem’s ancient, stony paths from Muslim and Jewish holy sites to an outdoor Mass for several thousand Catholic worshipers, urging followers of all three faiths to dwell on their common origin and overcome centuries of conflict.
But Israeli media were filled with criticism of what some called a banal and emotionless speech on the Holocaust. Commentators faulted him for avoiding questions of responsibility for the slaughter of 6 million Jews, Christian anti-Semitism and indifference, and his own wartime experience.
“The pope spoke like a historian, as somebody observing from the sidelines, about things that shouldn’t happen,” Israeli parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin said on Israel Radio. “But what can you do? He was part of them. With all due respect to the Holy See we cannot ignore the baggage he carries with him.”
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