Dan Balilty, File, Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Israel's national Holocaust memorial has toned down its account of Pope Pius XII's conduct toward the massacre of Jews during of World War II, following a long diplomatic dispute with the Vatican.
Critics have long contended that Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, could have done more to stop the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed. Before his election as pope, he also served as the Vatican's No. 2 and before that as the papal envoy to Germany.
Given his deep involvement in the Vatican's diplomatic affairs with the Nazis, what Pius did or didn't do during the war has become the single most divisive issue in Vatican-Jewish relations.
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 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 dispute 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 Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy, and that speaking out more publicly and critically against the Nazis would have resulted in more Jewish deaths. Critics argue he could have and should have said and done more.
The old text at Yad Vashem, headlined, "Pope Pius XII," refers to the "controversy" surrounding the pontiff's conduct, but offered only criticism.
The new text, headlined, "The Vatican," retains the criticism, but it adds his supporters' position that Pius' silence in 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 open its wartime archives to historians, but Franco said that is years away. "Only when all material is available will a clearer picture emerge," the memorial said.
The controversy over Pius' conduct has grown hotter over Vatican efforts to beatify him. Jewish leaders have asked the Vatican to freeze steps toward his sainthood until the complete set of Vatican archives is opened to scholars.
Pius' supporters argue that many of the documents are already available.
The contention over Pius lingers after half a century of dramatic advances in relations between Catholics and Jews. In 1965, the Vatican rejected 2,000 years of Catholic teachings that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ.
And after decades of reluctance, the Vatican recognized Israel in 1993, followed up by Pope John Paul II's official visit to Israel in 2000, which included a stop at Yad Vashem. The current pope, Pope Benedict XVI, visited in 2009.
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