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New Vatican effort at fence-mending

Jewish groups are irked by boost for Pope Pius XII despite his controversial war role.

VATICAN CITY - The Vatican sought yesterday to quell its latest public dispute with Jewish groups, saying Pope Benedict XVI's decision to move Pope Pius XII closer to sainthood isn't an act of hostility against those who say he failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust.

In what has now become a familiar effort at fence-mending, the Vatican issued a statement saying the German-born Benedict feels great respect for and friendship toward Jews - a sentiment he hopes to reinforce during his first visit to Rome's synagogue next month.

Benedict sparked new outrage among some Jewish groups Saturday by signing a decree on Pius' heroic virtues, paving the way for him to be beatified once a miracle attributed to his intercession is confirmed.

Some historians argue that Pius, pope from 1939 to 1958, could have done more during World War II to prevent the deaths of six million Jews at the hands of the Nazis.

The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews and that speaking out more forcefully would have resulted in more deaths.

Jewish groups have denounced the decision, noting they had asked Benedict to suspend Pius' cause until the Vatican archives on Pius' pontificate are opened to scholars. The Vatican has said the archives will not be ready until 2014 at the earliest.

Yesterday, the Vatican confirmed that time frame and said Benedict's decision was not intended to limit discussion on Pius' decisions.

But it repeated that as far as it was concerned, Pius showed great "attention and preoccupation" over the fate of Jews, "which is widely established and recognized even by many Jews."

It added that the decree on his "heroic virtues" was not so much a historical assessment of his pontificate as a confirmation that he had led a deeply Christian life.

"It's clear that the recent signature of the decree shouldn't in any way be seen as a hostile act against the Jewish people, and one hopes that it isn't taken as an obstacle to the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic Church," it said.

Yet the decision was the latest in a series of perceived affronts that have roiled Catholic-Jewish relations.

It followed on the heels of Benedict's rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop in January and his 2007 decision to revive the Latin Mass, which includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews.