Church built in memory of Italian Holocaust victims

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ROME — The Italian branch of the Catholic Church has dedicated a church in memory of Italian victims of the Nazis in Oswiecim, the southern Polish town near the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The new church, which is located several miles from the former death camp, has not aroused any opposition from Jewish groups.

About 1,000 Italians and Poles attended Sunday's consecration ceremony for St. Joseph's parish church, a stark, modern structure whose architecture symbolizes the Nazi terror and makes reference to the former death camp nearby.

Some 40,000 Italians were deported to Nazi death camps. About 8,000 Italian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

The church's foundation stone comes from the "Wall of Death" at Auschwitz where the Nazis executed thousands of people.

The church's facade is split, with a tall, white section on the left side and a bunker-like chapel reminiscent of the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz-Birkenau on the right.

The split represents "the atrocious wound inflicted on humanity" by the Nazi death camps, according to a statement issued last month by the Italian Bishops' Conference.

Inside, murals depict people — some of them wearing a Star of David — standing or rising toward the heavens.

Construction of the church began five years ago.

At the dedication ceremony, church leaders stressed the horrors of the Holocaust.

Cardinal Camillo Ruini, the head of the Italian Bishops' Conference, said there should be a special place in prayers for Jews since they were singled out for extermination and suffered the most under Nazi terror.

Polish Jewish representatives were invited to the ceremony, but a Jewish source in Warsaw said that as far as he knew, none of them attended because the ceremony was "right after Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah."

In the past, Jewish groups have protested Christian religious symbols, churches and other buildings, such as the Carmelite convent, in direct proximity to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

The overwhelming majority of Auschwitz victims were Jews, and the camps are considered the largest Jewish cemetery in the world.

The new church, however, is several miles from the death camp.

"It's an internal church matter," Stanislaw Krajewski, Poland consultant for the American Jewish Committee, said by telephone from Warsaw.