ROME (Reuters) - A leading Israeli official has praised Pope Pius XII for saving Jews during the Nazi occupation of Rome, a surprise twist in a long-standing controversy over the pontiff's wartime role.
The comments by Mordechay Lewy, the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, were some of the warmest ever made by a Jewish official about Pius. Most have been very critical of his record.
In an indication of just how sensitive the subject of Pius is among Jews, Lewy was quickly assailed by a group of Holocaust survivors.
Lewy, speaking at a ceremony Thursday night to honor an Italian priest who helped Jews, said that Catholic convents and monasteries had opened their doors to save Jews in the days following a Nazi sweep of Rome's Ghetto on October 16, 1943.
"There is reason to believe that this happened under the supervision of the highest Vatican officials, who were informed about what was going on," he said in a speech.
"So it would be a mistake to say that the Catholic Church, the Vatican and the pope himself opposed actions to save the Jews. To the contrary, the opposite is true," he said.
The question of what Pius did or did not do to help Jews has tormented Catholic-Jewish relations for decades and it is very rare for a leading Jewish or Israeli leader to praise Pius.
Many Jews accuse Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the scenes because speaking out would have led to Nazi reprisals against Catholics and Jews in Europe.
Lewy told Reuters Friday that he expected his comments to cause a stir but that he was standing by them.
"I am aware this is going to raise some eyebrows in the Rome Jewish community but this refers to saving Jews, which Pius did, and does not refer to talking about Jews, which he did not do and which Jews were expecting from him," Lewy said.
Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, called Lewy's comments unsustainable.
"For any ambassador to make such specious comments is morally wrong. For the Israeli envoy to do so is particularly hurtful to Holocaust survivors who suffered grievously because of Pius's silence," Steinberg said in a statement.
He said Lewy had "disgracefully conflated the praiseworthy actions of elements in the Catholic Church to rescue Jews with the glaring failure of Pope Pius to do so."
When Pope Benedict visited Rome's synagogue last year, the president of the capital's Jewish community told him that Pius' "silence before the Holocaust" still hurt Jews because more should have been done.
Many Jews responded angrily last year when the pope said in a book that Pius was "one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else."
Jews have asked that a process that could lead to Pius becoming a saint be frozen until all the Vatican archives from the period have been opened and studied.
Lewy said that most probably even opening the archives would not settle the controversy over Pius's role during the war.
Editing by Alistair Lyon