AP Interview: German Jewish leaders meet pope

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Posted: Sep 22, 2011 1:17 PM
AP Interview: German Jewish leaders meet pope

More than six decades after the end of World War II, a German-born pope met with Jewish leaders Thursday in the parliament building at the heart of what was once 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.

Benedict noted the significance of meeting in the former Nazi capital, telling the Jewish representatives that the "Nazi reign of terror was based on a racist myth."

"The supposedly "almighty" Adolf Hitler was a pagan idol, who wanted to take the place of the biblical God..." the pope said at the closed-door meeting, according to his prepared remarks.

"What man is capable of when he rejects God, and what the face of a people can look like when it denies this God, the terrible images from the concentration camps at the end of the war showed," the pope said.

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 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."

During the meeting, the pope said trust had grown between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people but needs to increase even more.

"It is clear to us all that a loving relationship of mutual understanding between Israel and the Church, each respecting the being of the other, still has further to grow and needs to be built into the heart of our proclamation of the faith," he said.

The symbolic significance of the pope's visit to the refurbished seat of reunited Germany's parliament wasn't 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.

"(The Reichstag) 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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David Rising and Geir Moulson contributed to this report.