Pope Benedict XVI will become only the second Roman Catholic leader in modern times to visit a Jewish place of worship when he attends a special service at the Cologne synagogue in Germany on Friday.
This visit, part of his first official foreign trip, will take place almost two decades after John Paul II made a historic visit to the Rome synagogue in April 1986.
Since his election as Pope last April, Benedict XVI, formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has vowed to continue strengthening relations between Catholics and Jews just as his predecessor John Paul II did.
On April 21, just days after his election, the new Pontiff sent his first message to Europe’s Jews in a letter to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, expressing his desire to reinforce links between Jews and Catholics.
In a homely during his installation mass on April 24, the Pope made specific mention of “a great shared spiritual heritage “with Jews.
He renewed his pledge to the Jews on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of Rome’s former Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff.
Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican, Oded Ben Hur, was the first to announce that the Pope told him during an audience of the planned visit to the Cologne synagogue. The city’s Jewish community had invited Benedict XVI to visit the synagogue when it heard of the Pope’s planned trip to Germany to attend the World Catholic Youth Day.
||Cologne has been home to Jews since Roman times|
||It's the oldest recorded Jewish community north of the Alps|
||Cologne’s synagogue was built in 1899|
||During WWII the synagogue was destroyed; rebuilt in 1959|
||Today it’s one of the largest synagogues in Germany|
||5,000 Jews live in the city, mostly Russian immigrants|
In June, the Pope warmly welcomed a high level Jewish delegation at the Vatican and declared: “My predecessors accomplished significant steps in the development of relations with the Jewish people. My intention is to pursue this path.”
The Pope then referred to the role played by the “Nostra Aetate” document of 1965 in which the Catholic Church formally renounced the “teaching of contempt” of Judaism and called for improved dialogue between the religions.
However, despite these gestures and only a few weeks before the Pope’s visit to Cologne, Jewish leaders were worried about a diplomatic row which erupted in July when Israel protested its omission from a papal message condemning terrorist attacks in London, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.
“This disharmony between Rome and Jerusalem doesn’t overshadow the Pope’s visit,” Abraham Leher, a member of the Cologne synagogue board said, stressing that the visit is a proof of Benedict XVI’s commitment to inter-faith relations.
Earlier that month, Benedict XVI had accepted an invitation to visit Israel, during an audience with an Israeli minister.