Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday prayed at the memorial to victims of a 1944 massacre that was one of the worst atrocities by German occupiers in Italy during World War II and denounced what he called the "abominable" legacy of violence unleashed during war.
The visit won Jewish praise that Benedict had taken yet another step to heal centuries of painful Vatican-Jewish relations.
The German-born pontiff visited the Ardeatine Caves on the outskirts of Rome to mark the anniversary of the killings of 335 civilians in Rome to avenge an attack by resistance fighters that killed 33 members of a Nazi military police unit.
Among those in attendance were children and other relatives of the victims, with some of the elderly family members weeping at the memory of their loss and clutching flowers.
"What happened here on March 24, 1944, is a very grave offense to God, because it is violence perpetrated by man upon man," the pope said in speech at the simple memorial fashioned out of the walls of the caves. "It is the most abominable effect of the war, of every war," the pontiff said.
The wounds are still fresh for Rome's tiny Jewish community. Many of them expressed outrage last fall when former SS Capt. Erich Priebke, 97, was allowed to go shopping and to church in Rome. Priebke was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the massacre but later given house arrest due to his age.
Elan Steinberg, a leader of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, praised the pontiff for paying "moving homage to the victims of this Nazi crime — Catholic and Jew."
"Coming on the heels of his strong pronouncement exonerating Jews in the death of Jesus, this latest gesture by the German-born Benedict is a further dramatic step in binding the wounds that have disturbed Vatican-Jewish relations in recent years," Steinberg said in a statement.
The landmark exoneration came in the pope's new book, "Jesus of Nazareth-Part II," in which Benedict lays out biblical and theological reasons why there is no basis in Scripture for the argument that Jewish people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' crucifixion. Interpretations to the contrary have been used for centuries to justify the persecution of Jews.
Steinberg also voiced the "shock and disbelief" of Holocaust survivors that Priebke "is allowed shopping trips and other excursions," and appealed to legal authorities to "put an end to this perversion of justice.'"
In 1994, Priebke was extradited to Italy from Argentina, where he had lived for years, and put on trial. The Germans had ordered 10 Italians to be executed for each of the 33 Nazis killed by resistance forces in Rome a day earlier. Priebke admitted shooting two people and rounding up victims, but insisted he was only following orders.