JERUSALEM – The Vatican's representative to the Holy Land on Monday played down the controversies that could mar next week's visit by Pope Benedict XVI: the conduct of a wartime predecessor and the church's perceived lenience toward a Holocaust-denying priest.
Benedict's remarks about Muslims have stirred anger in the Arab world, as well.
But Monsignor Antonio Franco, the Apostolic Nuncio to Israel, stressed that a papal visit to the Holy Land is not the time to "quarrel for this or that."
The pope will visit Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories during his eight-day Holy Land tour that begins Friday. It's only the second official papal visit to the Jewish state and comes nine years after a groundbreaking trip by Pope John Paul II, who moved many by worshipping at the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray.
Rabbi David Rosen, one of Israel's leading voices in interfaith relations, portrayed Benedict as a good friend of the Jews and described differences with him as "an issue of style rather than an issue of substance."
Franco said a joint Jewish-Catholic commission is working hard to resolve the controversy over whether Pius XII, the pope who reigned during World War II, did enough to try to stop the Holocaust — the issue that has emerged as perhaps the most difficult in relations between the two religions.
"We are widening the vision and the understanding of a very difficult period of history," Franco said at a news conference in Jerusalem. "For sure this will not be an issue of discussion on the visit of the Holy Father."
Rosen, who held a news conference right after Franco's, had a different take.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it were mentioned in passing" during Benedict's visit, he said.
At issue is a caption under a photo of Pius at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust museum alleging that he did not protest as Nazis rounded up Jews in Europe and sent them to their deaths.
Benedict has referred to Pius as a "great" churchman and the Holy See insists he used quiet diplomacy to try to help Jews. In September, he praised what he called Pius' "courageous and paternal dedication" in trying to save Jews.
"Wherever possible, he spared no effort in intervening in their favor either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church," Benedict said. A movement inside the church has been seeking Pius' beatification for the past 25 years — stirring great opposition among Jews.
"It's not the business of the Jewish people to tell the Catholic church who its saints are," said Rosen, who heads the American Jewish Committee's Department for Inter-religious Affairs and is the first Orthodox rabbi to receive a papal Knighthood.
However, he said making Pius a saint "would be seen as some sort of whitewashing of the period of the Shoah," using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were murdered by German Nazis and their collaborators.
Two other controversies have also caused tensions with Jews during Benedict's tenure. Earlier this year, the pope lifted the excommunication of a bishop who had denied the Holocaust. He later acknowledged mistakes by the Vatican in reaching out to the renegade.
Benedict's 2007 decision to relax restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass also caused consternation by restoring to prominence a prayer for the conversion of the Jews recited during Easter Week.
Franco on Monday said both those issues have been resolved, stressing that Catholics do not pray for the conversion of Jews. "We leave to God the conversion," he said.
Many Muslims also criticized Benedict after a 2006 speech in which the pope quoted a medieval text depicting the Prophet Muhammad as violent. Benedict later said the text didn't reflect his views, but his speech drew protests in many parts of the Arab world.
An aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Monday the pope's speech was wrong at the time, but he would be welcomed as a pilgrim in the Holy Land.
"There are differences between our point of views and his point of view, but these differences won't affect our welcome for him," said Abbas aide Rafik Husseini.
Israel and the Vatican established diplomatic ties in the early 1990s, but they still must resolve issues such as the status of church property in the Holy Land and tax exemptions for the church.
Benedict's visit to Israel is also imbued with a certain poignance because he is German. As a teenager named Joseph Ratzinger, he served in the Hitler Youth movement, though he has written that the Nazis forced him to do so.
Like most dignitaries visiting Israel, Benedict will lay a wreath at the Yad Vashem memorial and is scheduled to meet with Holocaust survivors there.
Both Franco and Rosen on Monday denied reports that Benedict's decision not to visit Yad Vashem's museum section had something to do with the Pius controversy.
During his visit, the pope will also head to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, in addition to visits to the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. He will hold open air masses in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.
Benedict has a strong record in building Catholic-Jewish relations. He has visited the Nazi death camp Auschwitz in Poland and synagogues in Germany and the United States.
Rosen, who has known Benedict for many years, said the pope at one point told him that Jews "are the living roots of the Church."
"It's an important comment and he deeply believes in it," Rosen said.