Israel's ambassador to the Vatican on Sunday backed off his praise of Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope blamed by some Jews and historians for having failed to speak out enough against the Holocaust.
Ambassador Mordechai Lewy said in a statement that his personal judgment about the role of Pius, the Vatican and Catholic Church during the war had been "premature" since the issue is still being researched.
Lewy made headlines last week when he praised Pius and the Catholic Church in general for having given refuge to Roman Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Italian capital. The Vatican newspaper ran his speech on the front page, giving the brief but significant remarks high visibility.
But some Jewish groups balked, saying Lewy's comments were morally wrong, historically inaccurate and hurtful to Holocaust survivors.
Pope Benedict XVI is keen to see Pius beatified, the first step to sainthood, and a concerted campaign is under way among Pius' supporters to correct what they say has been an unfair and incorrect judgment passed on Pius.
As a result, Lewy's remarks in praise of Pius _ unusual for a Jew much less an Israeli official _ were significant in that they indicated a slight shift in the historic judgment of a man the Vatican considers worthy of one of the church's greatest honors but who many Jews consider a moral coward.
Pius was pope from 1939-1958. Before his election he served as the Vatican's No. 2 and before that papal nuncio to Germany. Given his deep involvement in the Vatican's diplomatic affairs with the Nazis, what Pius did or didn't do during the war has become the single most divisive issue in Vatican-Jewish relations.
The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy and that speaking out more publicly and critically against the Nazis would have resulted in more Jewish deaths. Critics argue he could have and should have said and done more.
And so eyebrows were raised when Lewy told a ceremony awarding a "Righteous of the Nations" medal in honor of Gaetano Piccini, an Italian priest who sheltered Jews, that Piccini wasn't alone in saving Jewish lives in Rome.
"It would be an error to declare that the Catholic Church, the Vatican or the pope himself opposed actions aimed at saving Jews," Lewy said June 23. "The contrary is actually true: they helped wherever they could."
He said the fact that the Vatican couldn't stop the deportation of Jews from Rome's ghetto on Oct. 16-18, 1943 "only increased the will, on the part of the Vatican, to offer its own sites as refuges for the Jews."
He said Jews were traumatized by the deportation and expected much more from the pope.
"Fine, we all know what happened, but we also must recognize that the train that left on Oct. 18, 1943 was the only one that the Nazis managed to organize from Rome to Auschwitz," he said.
On Sunday, Lewy said he wanted to make a clarification to his remarks, noting that his praise of Piccini's good deeds were embedded in a broader historical context.
"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," the statement said.
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the group American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said he appreciated Lewy's clarification.
"It takes courage to admit a mistake," said Steinberg, who had initially criticized Lewy for his comments.
Jewish leaders have asked that the Vatican not beatify Pius until the complete set of Vatican archives is opened to scholars, which is not expected for several more years. Pius' supporters argue that a good chunk of the documents are already available and that few scholars ever consult them.
(This version corrects last name to Lewy instead of Levy.)