Page last updated at 15:46 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 16:46 UK

Nazi row puts spotlight on Pope's PR

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi (right) reads out questions to Pope Benedict aboard plane en route to Jordan, 8 May
Fr Lombardi (with microphone) directs the Vatican Press Office

The Pope spent the start of the day stepping gingerly through some of the most sensitive real estate in the world.

At the Dome of the Rock, a sacred site to Muslims, he removed his red leather shoes as a mark of respect.

Just below, at the Western Wall, one of the holiest sites for Jews, Benedict followed Jewish tradition by placing a written prayer between the cracks of the 2,000-year-old stones.

The Pope spoke at both sites, offering praise, in turn, to the two other monotheistic religions. So far, so emollient. But then the Pope's spokesman stoked a row that had appeared to be puttering to an end.

In the wake of the pontiff's speech at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, there had been some criticism from Israeli politicians and commentators that Benedict had not issued a pointed enough mea culpa for the role the Roman Catholic Church had historically played in fomenting anti-Semitism.

Feelings were sharpened by this Pope's own personal history: that he was a teenage member of the Hitler Youth.

Except that now, according to the Vatican spokesman, the then Josef Ratzinger was not a member of the Hitler Youth.

"Never, never, never," said Father Frederico Lombardi, to a group of journalists. "The Pope was never in Hitler Youth."

Fanning the embers

This, strangely, appears to contradict completely Cardinal Ratzinger's own words, as quoted in his book of autobiographical reflections from 1996, Salt of the Earth.

Joseph Ratzinger as a German Air Force assistant in a 1943 photo
Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) was a German Air Force assistant

"As a seminarian," he says, "I was registered in the Hitler Youth. As soon as I was out of the seminary, I never went back."

Particularly odd is the fact that what controversy there had been over the Pope's remarks at Yad Vashem had flared overnight and into the morning.

The criticism - that, for example, Benedict had said that Jews had been "killed" in the Holocaust rather than "murdered" - was heartfelt, but contained.

But now, in the afternoon, here was the Pope's spokesman appearing to energetically fan the embers.

The controversy over Benedict's self-confessed membership of the Hitler Youth has suggested that the steps of the 82-year-old Pope appear to be more sure-footed than those around him.

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