Pope Benedict to Make Rare Synagogue Visit

Want to see history come alive? Two old men will shake hands at the door of a New York synagogue Friday afternoon, and for a few minutes the horrors of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust will become flesh and blood, seeking to heal unspeakable wounds and build new bridges in the hopes that it never happens again.

The meeting is between Pope Benedict, 81, who as a German teenager was required to join the Hitler Youth and Hitler's armed forces, and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, 78, a Holocaust survivor, who as a teenager lost his family in the Nazis' Auschwitz and Terezin concentration camps.

"I think what the Jewish community is looking for is that wonderful brotherly relationship that says we can disagree on things — brothers disagree on things — but we respect each other enormously," Sir Gilbert Levine told ABC News as he reflected on what Benedict's visit to Manhattan's Park East Synagogue may mean.

Levine is a Jewish American conductor who for 20 years has worked closely with Vatican prelates on interfaith musical projects and has been honored with knighthoods by both Popes John Paul and Benedict.

He has reason to be hopeful, having participated in unprecedented events of interfaith healing that included his conducting the first Holocaust memorial concert inside the Vatican in collaboration with John Paul.

But Benedict's first efforts to reach out to other religions -- especially to Jews and Muslims -- have not been all sweetness and light.

'Foot-in-Mouth Pope'

Dubbed the "Foot-in-Mouth pope" by some members of the Vatican press corps, Benedict infuriated many Muslims with a speech in 2006, in which he cited a medieval Byzantine emperor who called the Muslims "evil and inhuman." It led to riots in Muslim countries and the murder of a nun.


"I think now we're on a very positive track," the Rev. Thomas Reese, of the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told ABC News, referring to a planned meeting of Catholic and Muslim leaders. "Twenty-four Muslim scholars and 24 Catholic scholars are going to talk about God's commandment that we love one another. And they're going to talk about human dignity and the respect that we have for one another."

As for the previously fast improving relations between the Vatican and Jews, they have come to a distinct bump in the road, if not a washed-out bridge.

Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi in Rome, is now reported to be "suspending" -- though not canceling -- plans for any future meetings with Vatican authorities.

'A Pause for Reflection'

"We are asking for a 'pause for reflection,'" Di Segni has told reporters. This was triggered in part by a reintroduced Catholic Latin prayer that Di Segni says evokes "a sort of shadow, an anguish we Jews drag along behind us."

The Latin prayer, approved by Benedict two months ago, reads in part (unofficial translation): "Let us pray for the Jews. May the Lord our God enlighten their hearts so that they may acknowledge Jesus Christ, the savior of all men."

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