Pope Benedict XVI condemned Thursday, Feb. 12, all forms of anti-Semitism in his first face-to-face meeting with Jewish leaders since the start of a row over a bishop who said Jews were not killed in Nazi gas chambers.
The pope has sought to calm tensions over Williamson's comments
The pope told the delegation of the Conference of American Jewish Organizations that the Catholic Church remained "profoundly and irrevocably committed to rejecting all anti-Semitism and to continuing to build good and lasting relations between our two communities."
"It is beyond question that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable," the pontiff said at the Vatican, referring to the mass-murder of Jews by the Nazis during World War Two.
During the private audience Benedict also said 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 visit is provisionally set for May, the AFP news agency reported.
The pontiff was addressing a delegation of about 60 representatives headed by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor who in April 2008 hosted the pontiff at his New York synagogue.
Call for measures against bishop
Several Jewish leaders speaking before the meeting said they hoped Benedict would use the opportunity to announce steps against British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, who in a television interview in late January denied Jews were killed in Nazi gas chambers.
Williamson was among four ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X bishops whose 1988 excommunication Benedict revoked on Jan. 24 -- a decision announced a few days after the Williamson interview was aired on Swedish television.
Jewish groups say Catholic church must distance itself from Williamson's comments
Facing mounting criticism, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Vatican last week said Williamson must distance himself "clearly and publicly" from remarks he made denying the Holocaust.
The pope's effort to patch up relations with Jewish groups came as another religious group, a collection of Austrian priests, condemned the recent promotion of a cleric who suggested Hurricane Katrina was provoked by sin in New Orleans.
Katrina was one of the deadliest hurricanes to hit the US in recent memory. The US government estimates that more than 1,800 residents of New Orleans died in the 2005 tragedy.
Yet despite his comments on Katrina, the Vatican announced late January that Reverend Gerhard Maria Wagner would be promoted to the position of auxiliary bishop in Linz in Upper Austria province.
The chief church dean of Upper Austria, Franz Wild, said 31 out of 35 deans in the province had rejected Wagner's nomination during an informal meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 10.
Benedict has won the support of a group of Bavarian bishops
In a show of solidarity, bishops from the German state of Bavaria have issued a statement of support for Pope Benedict. The bishops said they would act to counter any anti-Semitic behavior in the church.
"Throughout these recent days and weeks there has been much distorted discussion about the Catholic Church. This urges us as Bavarian bishops to state our unbreakable solidarity with (Pope Benedict)," the bishops wrote in a letter published Wednesday.
"We will discourage with all determination any attempt to move the Catholic Church and you, as our Holy Father, closer to unclear statements of anti-Semitism," the statement continued.
The bishops said they would attempt to correct the one-sided representation in the media of the row surrounding Williamson, in an effort to create a more objective discussion on the matter.