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Pope defends WWII pontiff at synagogue

In a synagogue visit haunted by history, Pope Benedict XVI and Jewish leaders sparred over the record of the Second World War-era pope during the Holocaust and agreed on the need to strengthen Roman Catholic-Jewish relations.

Both sides said the visit to the seat of the oldest Jewish community in the diaspora was an occasion to overcome what Benedict called "every misconception and prejudice".

Signs of the Jewish community's tragic history were abundant, as German-born Benedict stopped at a plaque marking where Roman Jews were rounded up by the Nazis in 1943 and at another marking the slaying of a two-year-old boy in an attack by Palestinian terrorists on the synagogue in 1982.

Benedict defended his predecessor Pius XII against critics, telling the Rome audience that the Vatican worked quietly to save Jews from the Nazis during the Second World War.

Many Jews object to Benedict moving Pius towards sainthood, contending the wartime pope didn't do enough to protect Jews from the Holocaust.

While he didn't mention Pius by name, Benedict told Jewish leaders in the synagogue that the Vatican "itself provided assistance, often in a hidden and discreet way".

Jewish Community President Riccardo Pacifici, whose grandparents were killed at Auschwitz while his father was saved by Italian nuns in a Florence convent, criticised Pius.

Mr Pacifici said the "silence" of Pius "still hurts as a failed action".