VATICAN CITY: February 12, 2009. (AFP) Pope Benedict XVI said on Thursday that it was "intolerable" to deny the Holocaust as he confronts controversy over a bishop who claimed Jews were not killed in the Nazi gas chambers.
"Any denial or minimisation of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable," the pope told leaders of the Conference of American Jewish Organisations when he also confirmed plans to visit Israel.
"This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures," he said in a veiled reference to Richard Williamson, the ultra-conservative bishop has denied that Jews died in Nazi gas chambers.
"The (Roman Catholic) Church is profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism and to continue to build good and lasting relations between our two communities," the German pontiff said.
The pope has come under harsh criticism since last month for lifting the excommunication of Williamson and last week the Vatican called on him to retract his negationist statements, which he has refused to do.
Replying to the pope, Rabbi Marc Schneier, head of the American Jewish congress, said his community had faced "painful and difficult days" because of Williamson's comments.
"Thank you for your understanding of our pain and anguish and your firm statement expressing unquestioned solidarity with the Jewish people," he added, highlighting how Jews face "the new scourge of anti-Semitism, the desecration and burning of synagogues."
The pope on January 24 lifted excommunication of Williamson and three other members of a breakaway fraternity that rejected the Vatican reforms of the early 1960s.
They rejected a declaration, Nostra Aetate, which ended a Church doctrine by which the Jews were held responsible for killing Jesus Christ.
Three days before the pope's move, Swedish television aired an interview with Williamson recorded last November in which he repeated his denial of the existence of Nazi gas chambers.
The comments set off a torrent of outrage, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel leading political condemnation of the pope's move.
Williamson told the German weekly Der Spiegel last week that he would reexamine the historical evidence of the Nazi gas chambers but made no indication that he had changed his views.
Benedict also told the American delegation he was "preparing to visit Israel, a land which is holy for Christians as well as Jews, since the roots of our faith are to be found there."
The Vatican has been in talks with Israel for a possible visit by the pope in May, but the Williamson affair had cast doubt on the trip.
News reports said it would take place May 8-14 and include stops in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem as well as the Jordanian capital Amman.
On Thursday, Benedict recalled Pope John Paul II's 2000 visit to Jerusalem, saying: "If there is one particular image which encapsulates this commitment, it is the moment when (he) stood at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, pleading for God?s forgiveness after all the injustice that the Jewish people have had to suffer."
Saying he wanted to make that prayer, "my own," the pope quoted his predecessor's words: "We are deeply saddened by the behaviour of those who in the course of history have caused (Jews) to suffer, and, asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant."