Jerusalem: When Joseph Ratzinger became pope in 2005, many in Israel wondered whether the German-born Cardinal with the Nazi past would prove a worthy successor to the popular Pope John Paul II, whose pluralistic path helped sooth centuries of fraught relations between Jews and Christians.
Eight years later, following his surprise resignation Monday, Israeli leaders lauded Pope Benedict XVI as a friend who helped promote dialogue and coexistence.
"I greatly appreciate him for his immense activity to interfaith connection that has contributed greatly to the reduction of anti-Semitism in the world," said Yona Metzger, one of Israel`s two chief rabbis. "I pray that his legacy is preserved and that the trends he led will continue since the relations between the rabbinate and the church during his term were the best ever."
Israeli President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, said he was "saddened" to hear of Benedict`s departure, and praised the outgoing pope for strengthening ties between the Vatican and the Jewish state.
"Under his leadership the Vatican has been a clear voice against racism and anti-Semitism and a clear voice for peace. Relations between Israel and the Vatican are the best they have ever been and the positive dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people is a testament to his belief in dialogue and cooperation," Peres said.
Benedict, who was forced to join the Hitler Youth as a child in Nazi Germany and then served in the German army before deserting near the end of the war, made improving relations with Jews a priority of his pontificate. He visited the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland and Israel`s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. In a 2011 book, he made a sweeping exoneration of the Jewish people for the death of Jesus Christ, contradicting interpretations that had been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.