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Jewish leaders condemn Vatican's plan to venerate Pope Pius XII

By Kevin Flower, CNN
Pope Pius XII served as pontiff from 1939 to 1958. He is accused of not doing enough to stop Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Pope Pius XII served as pontiff from 1939 to 1958. He is accused of not doing enough to stop Nazi atrocities during World War II.
  • Moves by Pope Benedict XVI to beatify Pope Pius XII have caused controversy
  • Jewish leaders have reacted saying he should not be made holy
  • Pope Pius XII accused of not denouncing Nazi Germany's mass slaughter of Jews
  • Vatican
  • Israel

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Jerusalem, Israel (CNN) -- It was a Vatican announcement guaranteed to spark controversy.

"With this decree the Pope says that Pius XII is a person that we have to admire, recognize as a model of Christian virtues, and it is very, very important that the church gives officially this appreciation of this important pope that we know was guiding the church in very difficult times," said Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.

The move by the sitting Pope, Benedict XVI, brings the controversial World War II pontiff, Pius XII, a step closer to sainthood, despite persistent allegations from historians and Jewish groups that he did not do enough to help prevent the murder of six million Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany.

In Israel the news has been met with a mixture of disappointment, bewilderment and anger by Jewish leaders.

Rabbi Yisrael Lau told CNN: "I say with all the respect. Don't do it, especially not now when many survivors are still alive and it will hurt them deeply knowing that the man who could save, could do much more and did not do it. Don't make him holy. This is a shame I think for the church. It is not a good education for generations to come."

The Vatican maintains Pius XII worked quietly behind the scenes to save Jewish lives during the war, but church archives that might shed more light on his actions remain sealed despite repeated requests from historians for access.

Earlier in the year the German-born Benedict faced a wave of criticism for reinstating a holocaust denying Bishop who had been excommunicated for reasons unrelated to the Holocaust.

It was a public relations crisis the pontiff attempted to smooth over in his eight-day visit to the Holy Land this past summer. "Every effort must be made to fight anti-Semitism wherever it is found," Pope Benedict said.

But despite the outreach, tensions between Israel and the Holy See persist.

Real estate disputes over rights and ownership of Christian sites like the Cenaculum, the site where tradition holds Jesus held his last supper and unresolved questions of Vatican tax liability have gone unresolved despite almost two decades of sometimes tortured negotiation.

Despite the protracted impasse, Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon remains confident a resolution to the dispute can be found.

"I would not deny that there are still some misunderstandings and there is not yet a comprehensive agreement but with goodwill and some creativeness on all sides we will make it happen," he said.

Ayalon's sentiments were echoed by the Church's top official in Jerusalem, Latin patriarch, Fouad Twal: "This land, this holy land teaches us patience. We must have patience."

It is a virtue that will be needed in surplus if the misunderstandings both material and historical are to be overcome.

What do you think of Pope Benedict XVI's decision on Pope Pius XII?Have your say on the Connect the World blog.