VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI (search) has told the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican he intends to visit the main synagogue in Cologne, Germany, in August, becoming the second pontiff in history to visit a Jewish place of worship.
Ambassador Oded Ben-Hur (search) said the pope told him of the planned visit after an audience with the diplomatic corps assigned to the Vatican on Thursday.
Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II (search), made a groundbreaking visit to Rome's synagogue in 1986. The new pope has said he intends to continue John Paul's work toward improving relations between Roman Catholics and Jews.
"We're very happy, and this is a gesture that goes in line with the latest declarations" from the pope, Ben-Hur told The Associated Press by telephone Friday.
He said the planned visit showed Benedict's "desire to enhance and widen the dialogue with the Jewish people."
One of Benedict's first acts after becoming pope was to invite Rome's chief rabbi to his April 24 installation Mass. During his homily that day, the pope made specific mention of "a great shared spiritual heritage" with Jews.
On Sunday, he sent a letter of birthday greetings to the former chief rabbi of Rome who received John Paul during his 1986 visit, saying Catholics and Jews can continue dialogue and look with "confidence" toward the future.
The pope is planning to make the visit to the synagogue during a planned trip to Cologne for World Youth Day in August, Ben-Hur said. The Aug. 16-21 event is expected to draw tens of thousands of young people to the city.
Jews widely admired John Paul II for his unstinting efforts to promote Jewish-Catholic reconciliation, including his 1986 synagogue visit and his 2000 visit to Israel. John Paul won many Israeli hearts by apologizing for Roman Catholic wrongdoing over the centuries.
The path toward improved Catholic-Jewish ties was set before John Paul was elected — in the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate, or "In our Age," from the Second Vatican Council which rejected the notion that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ and rejected anti-Semitism.
"All in all there is a series of declarations that brings us to believe that the pope will follow in the footsteps of the position that was set by the church in the last few years and ever since the Second Vatican Council, and especially during the papacy of Pope John Paul," Ben-Hur said.
Benedict's effort to reach out to Jews carries an added dimension because of his membership in the Hitler Youth and later as a conscript in the German army during World War II. He has said he was forced into both roles.
"Everything that the new pope has said and done since achieving the papacy demonstrates his intention to continue in the path set by his predecessor and forge even closer relations between Israel and the Vatican, between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church," Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Friday.