JERUSALEM – The Vatican defended the pope Tuesday from a growing chorus of Israeli critics who accused the German-born Benedict XVI of failing to express enough remorse for the Holocaust — a controversy that threatened to eclipse a papal pilgrimage aimed at building bridges between faiths.
The Holocaust is just one of the many minefields Benedict is navigating as he makes his way through the Middle East. He has also moved to calm Muslim anger over past comments, and been urged by the Palestinians to do more to advance their cause against Israel.
On Tuesday, the pope delivered messages of peace while visiting the holiest Muslim and Jewish sites in Jerusalem — the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall.
But his speech Monday at Israel's national Holocaust memorial attracted the most attention in Israel, with the parliament speaker accusing Benedict of glossing over the Nazi genocide. Newspapers lambasted him for failing to apologize for what many in Israel see as Catholic indifference during World War II and the pope's own wartime actions — he served in the Hitler Youth corps and Nazi army — have also cast a shadow.
"The pope spoke like a historian, as somebody observing from the sidelines, about things that shouldn't happen. But what can you do? He was part of them," said parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin.
The pope delivered an emotional address at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, saying the cry of those killed by the regime under which he grew up "still echoes in our hearts." But only moments after he spoke, Yad Vashem's top two officials criticized him for failing to use the words "Nazis" or "murder" in his speech.
Israeli newspapers Tuesday were filled with criticism. "One would have expected the Vatican's cardinals to prepare a more intelligent text for their boss," columnist Tom Segev said.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi defended Benedict, saying the pope had mentioned his German roots previously, specifically when visiting a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, in 2005 and at the Auschwitz death camp the following year.
"He can't mention everything every time he speaks," Lombardi told reporters in Jerusalem.
The Holocaust is an extremely sensitive subject in Israel. The Jewish state was founded in the wake of the Nazi genocide of six million European Jews, and more than 200,000 elderly Holocaust survivors live in Israel.
The Vatican's wartime pope, Pius XII, has been criticized by Jews for doing little to prevent the Holocaust — a charge the church denies.
Benedict's wartime history is discomforting in Israel, even though he has said he was forced to join Hitler Youth and that he later deserted the military. More recently, he upset Jewish leaders by revoking the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop.
There have also been tense moments in the pope's interaction with Palestinians.
At an interfaith meeting late Monday, an Islamic judge, Taysir Tamimi, commandeered the microphone and went on a lengthy tirade against Israel.
The pope, who did not understand the Arabic diatribe, sat silently. But the event ended early, and a planned gift ceremony with a rabbi was held privately, apparently to avoid any further public spectacles. The Vatican said it hoped the tirade would "not damage the mission of the Holy Father."
Despite the controversies, the pope has been warmly welcomed by Israeli dignitaries, Muslim clerics and Christian followers at every stop.
Benedict took his message of reconciliation to the most contentious religious site the Holy Land on Tuesday, urging Israel and the Palestinians to engage in "a sincere dialogue aimed at building a world of justice and peace."
The pope visited the Dome of the Rock, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, and the adjacent Western Wall, revered by Jews as a remnant of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Competing claims to the hilltop compound — known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and Jews as the Temple Mount — have sparked violence in the past. Resolving the dispute has been the most intractable issue during more than 15 years of on-and-off Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
The visit included a private meeting with the top Islamic cleric in the Holy Land, the Grand Mufti Mohammed Hussein, who said afterward he told the pope of the Palestinians' suffering "and we asked for justice in this Holy Land." Asked how the pope responded, he replied, "We felt he was receptive."
Late Tuesday, the pope celebrated Mass with several thousand followers in a valley beneath the spot where Jesus is believed to have prayed with his disciples before his arrest. Benedict arrived in his popemobile, smiling and blessing the crowd. He began the Mass with the traditional Latin greeting, "Pax Vobis," or peace be with you.
In his homily, Benedict acknowledged "the difficulties, the frustration, and the pain and suffering which so many of you have endured ... I hope my presence here is a sign that you are not forgotten."
He urged the Holy Land's Christians — who, caught between Jews and Muslims, have been emigrating in large numbers — to persevere. "In the Holy Land there is room for everyone," he said to applause.
"We need peace here. I hope he can help by praying for us," said Elizabeth Smeir, 56, a Christian resident of Jerusalem who attended the Mass.
Also Tuesday, the pope told Israel's two chief rabbis that the Roman Catholic Church is "irrevocably committed" to "a genuine and lasting reconciliation between Christians and Jews."
Jews suffered centuries of persecution at the hands of the church, which traditionally held them responsible for rejecting and killing Jesus. The church disavowed that view in the 1960s, rejected anti-Semitism and started dialogue with other religions.