AP Interview: German Jewish leaders meet pope

September 22, 2011 - 12:30 PM
Germany Pope Visit

Pope Benedict XVI talks with the media on board an airplane as it flies over Germany on his way to Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. Pope Benedict XVI is on a four-day official visit to his homeland Germany. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

BERLIN (AP) — Over six decades after the end of World War II, a German-born pope met with Jewish leaders Thursday in the parliament that was once the heart of the Nazi capital.

Dieter Graumann, Germany's top Jewish leader, refused to characterize the gathering in Berlin's Reichstag building as historic, however, suggesting just how much Germany has changed.

"I think it is a wonderful sign that the pope is taking time right at the beginning of his busy schedule for us," Graumann, the head of Germany's Central Council of Jews, told The Associated Press before meeting the pope with about a dozen other Jewish representatives.

"It is a signal of friendship, of big-heartedness, and underlines that the relationship between the Roman Catholic church and Judaism has improved considerably in the past few decades," said Graumann.

Graumann, who moved to Germany as a child from his native Israel, was appointed the nation's top Jewish leader last year.

Benedict's four-day visit is the third as pope to his homeland. During his first trip months after becoming pope in 2005, Benedict took time out of commitments to young Catholics at World Youth Day to visit Cologne's main synagogue. In 2006, he made a pastoral trip to his Bavarian homeland. That same year, he denounced the mass murder of Europe's Jews during a visit to the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz in neighboring Poland.

Benedict has also visited synagogues in New York City and Rome.

Yet Benedict, 84, angered many Jews in 2009 with the decision to rehabilitate a Holocaust denier as bishop along with three other clergymen, all members of the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X. That, along with the pope's revival of a prayer for the conversion of Jews, remain sore points that Graumann said planned to address.

"The level of friendship we share also demands that we address what hurts us," Graumann said.

Still, the 61-year-old Jewish leader said he hoped the overwhelming message to emerge from the meeting would be positive.

"There is so much more that binds us, than divides us. As Catholics — as Christians — and Jews, we have very strong common roots," Graumann said. "I think we need to say that more often, and louder."

The symbolic significance of the pope's visit to the refurbished seat of reunited Germany's government was not lost on Parliament Speaker Norbert Lammert, who noted that the Reichstag is "a historic place."

The building was set ablaze on Feb. 27, 1933, just a month after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor. The Nazis blamed the blaze on a Dutch communist — though some believe they set it themselves — and used it as a pretext to consolidate power by suspending many civil liberties and to crack down on Communist Party rivals.

"It stands for the rise and fall of a parliamentary democracy. A significant cause of its failure was the lack of tolerance, whose victims were above all Jewish fellow citizens," said Lammert. "And it was Christians who looked away or went along, defamed, persecuted, humiliated and killed."

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Geir Moulson contributed to this report.