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Israel memorial softens view of WWII pope

Israel's national Holocaust memorial has toned down its account of Pope Pius XII's controversial conduct during World War II, following a diplomatic dispute with the Vatican.

A wall panel at the Yad Vashem memorial installed on Sunday still lists occasions when the wartime pontiff did not protest the slaughter of Europe's Jews. But it also offers the views of defenders who say the church's "neutrality" helped to save lives.

"This is an update to reflect research that has been done in the recent years and presents a more complex picture than previously presented," Yad Vashem said in a statement.

The papal envoy in Israel, Antonio Franco, welcomed what he called "the positive evolution."

"For the Holy See, for the church, it's a step forward in the sense that it evolves from the straight condemnation to the evaluation," including the position of the pontiff's backers, he said.

In 2007, Franco had threatened to skip that year's annual Holocaust remembrance day ceremony at Yad Vashem to protest the panel's old text. He eventually relented, but the spat frayed delicate ties between the Vatican and Israel, as well as the Vatican's image among Jews the world over, many of whom are similarly critical of Pius.

The old text, headlined, "Pope Pius XII," refers to the "controversy" surrounding the pontiff's reaction to the slaughter of Jews, but offered only criticism of his actions.

The new text, headlined, "The Vatican," retains the criticism. But it adds his supporters' position that Pius' abstaining from condemning the murder of Jews was not a moral failure but a tactic that prevented harsher measures against church institutions, enabling church officials to carry out secret rescue missions.

For years, Yad Vashem has urged the Vatican to throw open its wartime archives to historians, but Franco says the work is still in progress. "Only when all material is available will a clearer picture emerge," the memorial said in its statement.