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Pope puts Pius XII on sainthood path; Jews angry

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Saturday put his wartime predecessor Pope Pius XII, accused by Jews of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, back on the road to Roman Catholic sainthood.


Jewish groups had asked the pope to freeze the process that could lead to eventual sainthood until more World War Two archives could be studied.

The pope approved a decree on Saturday recognising Pius' "heroic virtues", meaning he will have the title "venerable". It puts Pius two steps away from sainthood. First he must be beatified and then canonised.

Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, called the decision "profoundly insensitive and thoughtless", coming a day after the site of the Auschwitz death camp was desecrated.

He was referring to Friday's theft of the notorious metal sign above the entrance of the former Nazi death camp that reads "arbeit macht frei" (Work Makes You Free).

"We are left bereft in our feelings," Steinberg told Reuters from New York, adding that it went against private assurances the Vatican had given the Jewish community.

"I am puzzled and concerned by the decision, especially as it seems rather undiplomatic in light of the pending visit of the Pope to the Rome synagogue in three weeks' time," Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Inter-religious Relations of the American Jewish Committee, told Reuters.

"While it is not the business of the Jewish community to tell the Holy See who its saints are, if the Church claims as it does that it seeks to live with the Jewish community in a relationship of mutual respect, we expect it to take our sensitivities into serious consideration," Rosen said.

THE SILENT POPE?

Pope Benedict has come under great pressure from both Catholics and Jews over the possible sainthood of Pius.

The Vatican's department that makes saints submitted the heroic virtues decree to the pope in 2007 but he decided not to approve it immediately, opting instead for what the Vatican called a period of reflection.

Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of not doing enough to help Jews, a charge the Vatican denies.

The Vatican maintains that Pius worked quietly behind the scenes because direct interventions might have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in Europe. Many Jews have rejected this position.

Jews have for years been calling on the Vatican to open the archives as soon as possible so they can be studied by scholars and asked Pope Benedict to freeze the process that could make Pius a saint until all the archives could be examined.

"Why the rush to open up the wound again before the opening of the archives?" Abe Foxman, U.S. national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told Reuters from Jerusalem.

Catholic supporters of Pius have been pushing Benedict to speed up the process, while most Jews believe that pushing Pius ahead on the road to sainthood would harm Catholic-Jewish relations.

The possible sainthood of Pius is one of several issues that have strained Catholic-Jewish relations. Benedict's decision to readmit to the Church a bishop who denied the extent of the Holocaust in January also strained ties.

Richard Williamson had said in an interview he believed there were no gas chambers and that no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by most historians.