VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI on Monday described a visit to Israel's Holocaust memorial as a disturbing encounter with hatred, days after his decision to move the controversial World War II-era pope closer to sainthood angered Jewish groups.
The German-born Benedict signed a decree Saturday on the virtues of Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust. The decree means that Pius can be beatified — the first major step toward possible sainthood — once a miracle attributed to his intercession has been recognized.
The decision sparked further outrage among Jewish groups still incensed over his rehabilitation earlier this year of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson.
Nevertheless, a planned visit by Benedict to Rome's main synagogue, scheduled for Jan. 17, is still on, said Ester Mieli, spokeswoman for Rome chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni. She dismissed a report in a Rome newspaper that the visit was in doubt following the Pius decision.
Benedict, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth and deserted from the Nazi Army, has repeatedly spoken out against the horrors of Nazism and anti-Semitism, but his efforts to improve relations with Jews have not always been smooth.
On Monday, he recounted his May trip to the Holy Land in a speech at the Vatican.
"The visit to the Yad Vashem has meant an upsetting encounter with the cruelty of human fault, with the hatred of a blind ideology that, with no justification, sent millions of people to their deaths," he said.
Yad Vashem is "first of all a commemorative monument against hatred, a heartfelt call to purification and forgiveness, to love," he said.
Benedict's speech during his Yad Vashem visit drew criticism in Israel, with some faulting the pope for failing to apologize for what they see as Catholic indifference during the Nazi genocide. Others noted that he failed to specifically mention the words "murder" or "Nazis."
Some Jews and historians have argued Pius, who served as pontiff from 1939-1958, should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. A caption of a photo of Pius at Yad Vashem's museum says he did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position."
The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews and didn't lash out at the Nazis for fear that such a public denunciation would only result in more deaths.
Jewish groups have argued that Benedict shouldn't have made any moves on Pius' beatification process until the now-closed Vatican archives of his pontificate are opened to outside researchers.
A Yad Vashem spokeswoman, Iris Rosenberg, said it was "regrettable" that the Vatican had acted before documents are made available.
The World Jewish Congress called any beatification of Pius "inopportune and premature" until consensus on his legacy is established, the World Jewish Congress said in a statement.
"There are strong concerns about Pope Pius XII's political role during World War II which should not be ignored," said Ronald Lauder, the president of the group. He called on the Vatican to immediately open all archives on Pius era and show "more sensitivity on this matter."
The European Jewish Congress argued that some Catholics are also opposed to beatification and urged the pontiff's advisers to persuade him to suspend the process.
"This is not just about Catholic-Jewish relations, but about the abuse of Holocaust memory and history," the group's president, Moseh Kantor, said in a statement.
The Vatican says its archives on the Pius era — about 16 million files — won't be opened to outside historians until 2014 at the earliest.
"It's not a matter of secrecy," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi was quoted as saying in Corriere della Sera. "Everything there is to know is already known."
Benedict has already visited two synagogues — in Germany and the United States.