JERUSALEM – Pope Benedict XVI pledged to remember the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust on Monday, as he sought to repair strains created by his decision to lift the excommunication of a bishop who denied the genocide took place.
Other tensions dated back even further to the Vatican's wartime legacy. The pope said said the cry of the victims "still echoes in our hearts" as he paid his respects during an emotional ceremony at Israel's national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem.
But the German-born pontiff did not delve into any of the Holocaust-related controversies during the start of a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories. And Yad Vashem officials gave the speech a lukewarm response.
His earlier calls for the establishment of a Palestinian homeland also put a damper on the high-profile trip, just the second official visit by a pope, by putting him at odds with Israel's new government.
Benedict, who briefly spent time in the Hitler Youth corps as a teen, shook hands and spoke to six elderly Holocaust survivors and rekindled Yad Vashem's eternal flame before addressing the audience.
"I have come to stand in silence before this monument erected to honor the memory of the millions of Jews killed in the horrific tragedy of the Shoah," he said, his voice shaking, as he used the Hebrew word for Holocaust. "They lost their lives but they will never lose their names."
"As we stand here in silence, their cry still echoes in our hearts. It is a cry raised against every act of injustice and violence. It is a perpetual reproach against the spilling of innocent blood," he added, saying the church is "working tirelessly to ensure that hatred will never reign in the hearts of man again."
In an inscription at the visitor's book at the memorial, he quoted from the Book of Lamentations: "His mercies are not spent."
Benedict is using a weeklong pilgrimage to the Holy Land to reach out to both Muslims and Jews. He spent three days in neighboring Jordan before arriving in Israel.
While Israel's relations with the Vatican have improved greatly since Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, visited in 2000, differences remain, none deeper than the widespread belief in Israel that the Vatican did not do enough to halt the Nazi genocide of European Jewry.
Israel and the Vatican are at odds over the legacy of World War II pontiff Pius XII, a candidate for sainthood. Benedict has referred to Pius as a great churchman, and in September, he praised what he called Pius' "courageous and paternal dedication" in trying to save Jews by quiet diplomacy.
At Yad Vashem, Benedict did not visit the main part of the museum, where a photo caption says Pius did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position."
Benedict himself has faced questions for his involvement in the Hitler Youth. Benedict says he was coerced.
The pope also outraged Jews earlier this year when he revoked the excommunication of a British bishop who denies the Holocaust. Ties were further strained when a senior Vatican official said during Israel's recent military campaign in Gaza that the territory resembled a "big concentration camp."
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of Yad Vashem's board of directors and a former chief rabbi of Israel, called the speech important but said he t think you have one of these at the Vatican," Peres quipped.
Before speaking, the pope met privately with Peres and the parents of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Hamas militants three years ago and remains in captivity in the Gaza Strip.
In the Gaza Strip, Palestinians were angry that the pope met the family of the captive Israeli soldier, but would not meet with relatives of any of the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners imprisoned in Israel.