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'Concentration camp' remark threatens Pope's visit to Israel

From Times Online
January 8, 2009

'Concentration camp' remark threatens Pope's visit to Israel
Richard Owen in Rome

A diplomatic row between Israel and the Vatican cast doubt over Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit to the Holy Land yesterday, after a prominent cardinal said that Gazans were living in a “big concentration camp”.

In his annual speech to diplomats in the Vatican the Pope sought to damp down the dispute. He said that the war was “provoking immense damage and suffering for the civilian populations” in Gaza and Israel. He urged “the rejection of hatred, acts of provocation and the use of arms” and added: “Violence, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, must be firmly condemned. The military solution is never an option,” he said.

His remarks came amid outrage from Israelis over a statement by Cardinal Renato Martino, the head of the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace and a former Holy See envoy to the United Nations, who compared Gaza to a concentration camp. The cardinal criticised Israel for killing civilians who had taken shelter at a UNrun school in Gaza.

Israeli officials said that they were “deeply shocked that a man of religion is using the vocabulary of Hamas propaganda”. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which monitors antiSemitism and hunts down Nazi war criminals, said that Cardinal Martino had used the language of a “Holocaust denier”.

In his remarks to the Italian website Il Sussidario, Cardinal Martino, one of the Pope’s closest aides, said: “Defenceless populations are always the ones who pay. Look at the conditions in Gaza: more and more, it resembles a big concentration camp.” He condemned Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israel, saying they were “not confetti” and that Israel “certainly has the right to defend itself”.

But he added: “We need willingness from both parties because both are guilty. No one sees the interests of the other, only their own benefit. The consequences of this egoism is hatred for others, poverty and injustice. Those who pay are always the local people – just look at the conditions in Gaza.”

He responded to Israeli protests by saying: “They can say what they want. I say look at the conditions in which people live; conditions that run contrary to human dignity. What is happening in these days causes horror.”

The row has brought to the surface festering tensions over a range of issues, including plans by the Pope to beatify Pope Pius XII, the wartime pontiff accused by critics of failing to speak out in defence of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust. The Vatican insists that Pius XII helped Jews while avoiding public statements that would have made matters worse, and has demanded the removal of a plaque attacking Pius XII at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Vatican officials also charge Israel with failing to keep promises to ease travel restrictions on Arab-Catholic clergy and remove taxes on Church-owned property in the Holy Land. Diplomats said that although plans for Pope Benedict’s trip to Israel, Jordan and the West Bank in May were well advanced, they had now been put on hold. He had hoped to follow in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who in 2000 prayed at the Wailing Wall.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said that Cardinal Martino’s remarks were “untrue, distort the memory of the Holocaust and are only used against Israel by terrorist organisations and Holocaust deniers.

“The cardinal should know that however difficult conditions may be in Gaza, the one thing it surely is not is a concentration camp where Jews were brought to die by slave labour, starvation, or in most cases, burnt in the crematorium.”

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