ROME, June 26 (JTA) — In his first visit to a Jewish site since a controversial appearance in Syria in May, Pope John Paul paid tribute this week to thousands of Ukrainian Jews killed by the Nazis in one of the bloodiest slaughters of the Holocaust.
The 81-year-old pope bowed his head and prayed in silence for five minutes Monday beside the ravine at Babi Yar, where the Nazis gunned down nearly 34,000 Jews during three days in September 1941.
As many as 150,000 Jews and 50,000 others were killed there over the course of two years.
Jews had looked to the Babi Yar visit with particular anticipation as it was the pope’s first major participation in such a ceremony since his trip to Syria in early May.
During that visit, the pope stood silently by as Syrian President Bashar Assad said Jews had betrayed Jesus and had tried to betray and kill the Prophet Mohammed.
Throughout his papacy, John Paul has frequently paid homage to Holocaust victims and condemned anti-Semitism.
Recently, as part of a policy of self-examination that marked the Christian millennium, he asked forgiveness for Catholics who were anti-Semitic or who failed to help persecuted Jews.
But Jewish groups felt the pope — who has tried to atone for centuries of Christian persecution of Jews based on the Church’s historic Christ-killer charge — made a major error by failing to confront the Syrian dictator.
The chief rabbi of Ukraine, Ya’akov Bleich, accompanied the pope to Babi Yar. He reportedly urged the pope to open Vatican archives so that children who were born Jewish but were saved and raised by Catholics during World War II could learn about their origins.
During the ceremony, Bleich handed the pope a statement saying, “Babi Yar is a name that still inspires awe and disgust as one of the prime symbols of evil and cruelty.”
Bleich said, “It is here that Hitler and his henchmen successfully created a Kiev that was ‘Judenrein,’ ” the German term for “cleansed of Jews.”
During the Soviet era, Communist officials further obliterated Jewish memory by erecting a monument that failed to mention that most of the victims at Babi Yar were Jews.
Only in 1991 could Jews erect a second monument to the Jewish victims.
The pope went to Babi Yar on the third day of a five-day visit to Ukraine. One of the themes of his trip was to encourage reconciliation and harmony among religions.
On Sunday, he met with leaders of various Ukrainian religious denominations and told them that the Babi Yar massacre was “one of the most atrocious of the many crimes” of the 20th century.
He said the Jewish people “suffered injustices and persecutions for having remained faithful to the religion of their ancestors.”
Bleich told reporters he was very happy that the pope had paid homage at Babi Yar, and he praised the pope’s role in improving Catholic-Jewish relations.
“Thanks to the efforts of John Paul II, we can hope that there will never be more Babi Yars,” he said.