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Does Pope Back Opening Archives? Jewish Leaders Get Mixed Signals

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Jewish leaders hope their meeting with Pope John Paul II may lead to greater access to sensitive Vatican archives from World War II.

In a private meeting Thursday with the president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, and the group’s secretary-general, Rabbi Israel Singer, the pope “gave his blessing” to a request to make more of the archives available to scholars, a WJC spokesman said.

The pope also endorsed a WJC plan to ask national bishops conferences to adopt public statements against anti-Semitism, as well as a WJC project to work with the Catholic charity Caritas to help needy children in Argentina, the WJC spokesman said.

After the private meeting, the pope held a half-hour meeting with a delegation of a dozen international Jewish leaders. Those who took part in the larger audience could not confirm that the pope had endorsed the requests.

At the larger meeting, in fact, the pope did not respond directly when urged to open wartime archives from the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, those present said.

Jewish leaders say Pius XII did not speak out strongly enough against the Holocaust.

That caused “some disappointment” among the Jewish leaders, according to those present.

One member of the delegation said Singer said Bronfman also asked the pope to speak out against suicide bombings and terrorism in Israel.

Bronfman and Singer left Rome immediately after the group audience, but Singer told Reuters that they and the pope had “agreed on everything.”

Bronfman raised the issue of the archives “in a friendly way,” Singer told the news agency. “We were encouraging them to open the archives, but it’s not like we came in with an aggressive approach. We came in with a negotiated approach.”

The Vatican and the Jewish world have clashed over granting scholars access to Vatican archives, in order to clear the air about the Vatican role in the Holocaust. Some prewar archives from the time of Pope Pius XI were unsealed in February, but archives from World War II remain sealed.

In his meeting with the full delegation, the only issue the pope touched on specifically was the Argentine charity project, for which he expressed “encouragement,” the Jewish leaders said.

The pope also praised Jewish-Christian relations and called for “courage and vision” to foster further “practical” cooperation, they said.

Those present said the pope’s failure to respond to specific points raised during the group audience disappointed some delegation members.

But Seymour Reich, who attended as past chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said the meeting was important nonetheless.

“Meetings of this nature are very important for the Jewish community,” he told JTA. “They give us the opportunity to share directly with the pope our concerns — about anti-Semitism, about Israel, about the Vatican archives.

“Even if there is not an immediate direct response, the hope remains that the pope and his aides will act on it in a positive way, and if that occurs that is one more positive step in our relations with the Vatican,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano called the five Palestinian suicide attacks that hit Israel in the past week a “vicious strategy against dialogue.”

In a front-page editorial, the paper said the terrorists’ intent was to wreck the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace before it had a chance to be implemented.

The Vatican audience followed a meeting Wednesday with Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who told a WJC delegation that he would fight anti-Semitism, promote sympathy for Israel in Europe and work to broker Mideast peace.

Speaking less than two months before Italy takes over the six-month rotating E.U. presidency, Berlusconi said he planned to fly to Israel in early June to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — but not, apparently, with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, whom Israel and the United States accuse of having ties to terrorism.

“Mr. Berlusconi said he considered Israel as part of Europe and agreed that Israel was not getting a fair shake” from Europeans in its conflict with the Palestinians, one source who attended the meeting told JTA. “He said he would work vigorously to change that.”

The trip to Rome followed the WJC’s executive meeting in Jerusalem. Still shaken by the suicide bombings, the group wanted to convey to Berlusconi Israel’s dismay at what it views as a lack of sympathy on the part of the European Union, European governments and the European public for Israel’s losses and suffering from Palestinian terrorism.

Berlusconi made “incredible statements” of support for the Jewish state, the source who attended the meeting said.

“He told us that he would stand shoulder to shoulder with President Bush to help broker peace,” he said. “As far as I know, no other European leader has come out so unambiguously.”

The delegation presented Berlusconi with a copy of the most recent WJC annual report on international anti-Semitism, which details a sharp rise in anti-Jewish violence and sentiment.

“Berlusconi said this was terrible and had to be fought,” the source said. “He said we had to take it seriously.”

He said Berlusconi also expressed interest in a series of Jewish cultural, educational and communal projects under way in Europe, and asked Cobi Benatoff, the Italian president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, to keep his office informed.

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