ROME — Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday acknowledged problems between Catholic and Jews, but insisted there was "great respect" between the two religions, hours before a controversial visit to a Rome synagogue.

The visit has divided Jewish groups because of Benedict's praise and push toward sainthood of wartime pontiff Pius XII, who some critics contend didn't do enough to save Jews during the Holocaust. The Vatican defends Pius, maintaining he used behind-the-scenes diplomacy in a bid to save Jewish lives.

Several prominent Jews have said they will boycott the visit.

In his weekly noon appearance to pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square, Benedict predicted that his visit would be a "further step on the path of harmony and friendship between Catholics and Jews.

He recalled the 1986 visit to the same synagogue by his predecessor, John Paul II, who was widely credited with dramatically improving relations with Jews. The late pontiff, who lived under Nazi occupation in his Polish homeland, where Jews were largely annihilated, affectionately referred to Jews as "our elder brothers" in faith during that groundbreaking visit.

Hundreds of police enforced strict security around the synagogue along the boulevard lining the Tiber. Officers guided dogs trained to sniff out explosives in the neighborhood, known as the Old Jewish Ghetto, where for hundreds of years Jews were confined under the orders of a 16th century pope.

As part of security ahead of the visit, motorists and strollers were banned from passing near the synagogue and the cobblestone streets were cordoned off. The neighborhood is the sentimental heart for Rome's 12,000-strong Jewish community, although many of them live elsewhere in the capital.

Italy's Jews are a tiny minority: about 30,000 in a predominantly Roman Catholic country of some 60 million.

The German-born Benedict, ahead of his meeting with Rome's Jewish community, said that "despite the problems and difficulties, you can breathe in a climate of great respect and dialogue among the believers of the two religions, testimony to how matured the relations are and to the common commitment to value that which unites us."

Those unifying factors were: "faith in the one God, above all, but also safeguarding life and the family, the aspiration for social justice and peace," Benedict said.

Under the leadership of John Paul and Benedict, the Vatican has been seeking common ground on such conservative agendas as traditional families while forging stronger relations with other religions, including Judaism and Islam.

Before entering the synagogue, the pope was scheduled to attend a wreath-laying ceremony in front of a plaque that recalls the Oct. 16, 1943, deportation of Jews in Rome during Nazi occupation. Another stop was planned at another memorial, which recalls the 1982 attack on the synagogue by Palestinian terrorists that killed a 2-year-old Jewish boy.

Across the world, relations between Jews and the Vatican have at times been tense over the Vatican's sainthood efforts for Pius, who was pontiff from 1939 to 1958. Those tensions flared again after Benedict last month issued a decree hailing the "heroic virtues" of Pius, an important step before beatification, which is the last formal stage before possible sainthood. (AP)