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Historic Papal Visit to Synagogue Emphasizes Good Relations

German-born Pope Benedict XVI stresses friendship and respect between Jews and Catholics during his historic visit to a US synagogue.

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Pope Benedict XVI reaches out to American Jews during his visit to a synagogue

German-born Pope Benedict XVI became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit a Jewish place of worship in the United States. Walking side by side with a Holocaust survivor into the sanctuary of New York's Part East Synagogue on Friday, the pontiff was greeted with a warm welcome.

"A heartfelt shalom. Willkommen," said Arthur Schneier, chief rabbi of the synagogue, mingling the Hebrew word for "peace" and the German word for "welcome."

Schneier, a 78-year-old Austrian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust while watching most of his family perish, embraced the historic and symbolic meaning of the pope's visit.

Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands the congregation in the Park East Synagogue

Pope Benedict XVI shakes hands with the congregation in the Park East Synagogue

"Your visit today… is a reaffirmation of your outreach, goodwill and commitment to enhancing Jewish-Catholic relations … In the last 45 years, much progress has been made," he said echoing words spoken in Washington by the pontiff, who has continued conciliatory steps taken by his predecessor John Paul II to improve relations with Jews.

The visit on the eve of Passover, the holy day marking the exodus from Egypt, is only the third by a pope to a Jewish house of worship. Benedict XVI visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany, in 2005, and his predecessor Pope John Paul visited one in Rome in 1986.

A gesture of friendship and respect

"Shalom! It is with joy that I come here just a few hours before the celebration of your Pesah (Passover), to express my respect and esteem for the Jewish community of New York City," Benedict told some 400 people gathered in the 120-year-old Byzantine-style synagogue.

"I encourage all of you to continue building bridges of friendship with all the many different ethnic and religious groups present in your neighborhood," the pope said.

View of Park East Synagogue

Park East Synagogue in New York's Upper East Side

Although Benedict has sometimes struggled with his efforts to heal the wounds of the past between the Catholic Church and world Jewry -- including most recently by reintroducing a controversial Good Friday prayer which calls for the conversion of Jews -- his visit to the synagogue helped smooth relations between the two religions.

Several Jewish leaders had criticized the prayer at the time, and the Vatican issued a statement that the text "in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church's regard for the Jews."

"That prayer certainly is not Jew-friendly," Rabbi Schneier told reporters after the papal visit. But the message the pope sent here was clear, he added: "The leader of the Catholic world standing in an American synagogue for the first time in history."

Howard Rubinstein, vice-chairman of the Holocaust Museum in New York, also praised the pope's gesture towards the Jewish people."

"In coming here he has made a spectacular effort to create good will between our religions and that means an awful lot, particularly in view of the suffering we had during the war and the historical relationship that existed," Rubinstein told reporters.

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