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French Jews accept apology by Catholics for WWII silence

Jewish leaders have welcomed a long-delayed apology by French Roman Catholic clergy for their church's silence during the World War II roundup of Jews by the collaborationist Vichy regime.

"Your words of repentance constitute a major turning point," Henri Hajdenberg, president of the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions, said at a ceremony Tuesday evening on the grounds of the former internment camp at Drancy, outside Paris."Your request for forgiveness is so intense, so powerful, so poignant, that it can't but be heard by the surviving victims and their children."

Standing in front of a cattle car like those used to send tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths, Hajdenberg spoke after the bishop of Saint Denis read a historic statement.

"We beg God's forgiveness and ask the Jewish people to hear our words of repentance," said Olivier de Berranger, whose diocese includes Drancy.

"We recognize that the church of France failed in its mission to educate consciences and thus bears the responsibility of not having offered help immediately.. . . We confess this mistake."

Standing nearby was Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the Jewish-born archbishop of Paris, whose mother was deported through Drancy and died at Auschwitz.

The timing of the apology was significant - it came a week before the long-awaited trial of Maurice Papon, the highest-ranking Vichy official ever to face a jury on charges of complicity in crimes against humanity.

A former police supervisor in Bordeaux, Papon is charged with signing arrest orders that led to the deportation of 1,690 Jews, including 223 children. His trial is expected to shed light on the role of the French administration in the Holocaust.

Exemplifying the painful process by which France is coming to terms with its wartime past, the conservative daily Le Figaro Wednesday sought to explain the Catholic silence as the Vichy government - led by World War I hero Philippe Petain - instituted anti-Jewish measures.

"The nation had collapsed . . . there were 1.5 million French prisoners in Germany; the French clung to the voice and the wrinkled face of Philippe Petain," it said.

But Le Figaro welcomed the Catholic apology as "a courageous act. It doesn't erase the past; it judges no one."

The apology followed Pope John Paul II's call in 1994 for the church to own up to the sins of Roman Catholics as it approaches the third millennium.

However, both the Vatican and John Paul have defended Pope Pius XII, the pope from 1939-58, against charges he remained silent or did not do enough to prevent the Holocaust.

About 76,000 Jews, including 12,000 children, were deported from France between 1941-44. Only about 2,500 survived.