JERUSALEM (JTA) — An Israeli official who praised Pope Pius XII for saving Jews during World War II retreated from his comments amid a hail of criticism.
Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Mordechay Lewy, said his comments were "premature."
"Given the fact that this context is still under the subject of ongoing and future research, passing my personal historical judgment on it was premature," Lewy said in a statement issued Sunday.
Two days earlier, at a ceremony honoring an Italian priest that helped save Jews from the Nazis, Lewy had said that Catholic institutions in Rome helped save Jews when the Nazis came to Rome’s ghetto.
"It would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews," he said. "To the contrary, the opposite is true."
Controversy over Pius’ role during the Holocaust has long strained Catholic-Jewish relations. Critics accuse Pius of having ignored Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and have called on the Vatican to open its secret archives to clarify the matter. The Vatican and other supporters say Pius worked behind the scenes to save Jews during the Holocaust.
The current pope, Benedict XVI, has angered many Jews by formally moving Pius closer to sainthood.
Lewy’s statements upset Holocaust survivors.
"Holocaust survivors are disappointed and disturbed by Ambassador Lewy’s historically unsustainable comments," Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said in a statement. "For any ambassador to make such specious comments is morally wrong. For the Israeli envoy to do so is particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors who suffered grievously because of Pius’ silence."