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Pope visits Jewish massacre site

Pope John Paul II
Pope John Paul II prays in front of the Babi Yar memorial  

KIEV, Ukraine (CNN) -- Pope John Paul II has made an important symbolic visit by going to the site of the notorious World War II Babi Yar massacre.

Babi Yar is an area of ravines, now part of Kiev, where 200,000 people were slaughtered, 150,000 of them Jews.

The Pope stopped by a monument at the site and said a prayer for the victims -- a gesture that resonated in Ukraine's Jewish community.

The Pontiff was silent during his visit but made reference to Babi Yar on Sunday night at an ecumenical conference.

He condemned what he called the "murderous frenzy," in which 33,000 people were shot dead and buried in mass graves in the first 72 hours of the slaughter.

The Pope said: "May the memory of such painful experiences help humanity today, especially the younger generation, to reject every form of violence and to grow in respect for human dignity, by safeguarding the fundamental rights rooted in it. Not least the right to religious freedom."

CNN's Jill Dougherty reports on the historic visit to the Ukraine by Pope John Paul II (June 23)

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Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, chief rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine, said the Jewish community that was destroyed 60 years ago is now being rebuilt and the Pope's gesture helps.

The rabbi recalled the fate of some Jewish children whose parents gave them up to Catholic neighbours in order to save them from death.

"The Pope's visit in that sense is strengthening the religious feeling among the population here and will, of course, help strengthen the entire basis of religious life in Ukraine," he said.

Babi Yar ravine -- also known as the vale of death -- is now a national park and memorial site.

Monday is the third day of the Pope's five-day visit to Ukraine.

The rabbi said he suggested the idea of a papal visit to Babi Yar to "unruffle feathers in the Jewish community" after the Pope's recent visit to Syria.

During that visit, Syrian President Bashar Assad made remarks offensive to Jews and Judaism, to which the Pope did not directly respond.

The Babi Yar massacre began on September 29, 1941. Jews of Kiev were ordered to go to a place near the area with money and valuables. Over the course of five days, they were executed.

Most of the victims were those who had not been able to flee from Kiev after the German invasion.

The Einsatzgruppe report quoted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum noted that because of what it called "exceptionally clever organisation," the Jews did not realise what awaited them until the last moment.

After wiping out the Jewish community in Kiev, the Nazis began rounding up Gypsies, Soviet prisoners of war, Ukrainian nationalists and others.

Dina Dityakovskaya was only age 2 when her father's family was killed and thrown into a mass grave in Ukraine. She welcomes the Pope's gesture. "This is a man with an indescribable heart," she said.

The Pope also presided over a Byzantine Rite Mass. It was celebrated by Byzantine Rite Cardinal Lubomyr Husar.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic parishioners welcome Pope John Paul II  

The Pope delivered a homily at the Mass, calling for church unity and high moral standards among Ukrainians.

Joaquin Navarro-Valls, Vatican spokesman, said there were many Orthodox Christians in the crowd.

When he was asked whether there was justification for Orthodox fears that the Catholic church is trying to attract Orthodox believers, he said the Catholic church respects the Orthodox church and believes it has every right to exist.

The Orthodox "are just here for today, just to see the Pope," he said.

Olga Klimenko, an Orthodox Christian who travelled from Odessa to visit the Pope, said she thought the pope's visit would change Ukraine forever.

After his vigil at Babi Yar, the papal pilgrimage continues to the heartland of Ukrainian Catholicism in the city of Lviv, where the Pontiff will beatify 27 Soviet-era Catholic martyrs.

Over a million are expected to greet the Pope in Lviv, despite a snub from the head of Ukraine's largest Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Volodymyr, head of the pro-Moscow branch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, was the only notable absentee at an evening meeting on Sunday between the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and Ukraine's religious organisations.

His absence highlighted the difficulties of the visit, which the Pope launched on Saturday with an assurance to Orthodox believers that the trip was not a crusade to win converts.

Ukraine's two smaller Orthodox Churches welcomed the Pope. But the largest, with 7.5 million followers, and its ally, the Russian Orthodox Church, say the visit epitomises what they perceive as Catholic encroachment on traditionally Orthodox territory.

During a visit to the neighbouring country of Belarus, Alexiy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that the visit would close the door to reconciliation between Christianity's eastern and western branches and prevent the Pope coming to Moscow. Vatican officials in Kiev played down the row.

--CNN's Jill Dougherty and Jim Bittermann contributed to this report

• Vatican
• Kiev and Babi Yar
• Yad Vashem - Holocaust memorial site

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