updated 1/23/2009 3:55:34 PM ET 2009-01-23T20:55:34

The Vatican's relations with Jews risked a new crisis Friday after an excommunicated British bishop — reportedly in line for rehabilitation — said that historical evidence "is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed" during World War II.

Two Italian newspapers reported Thursday that Pope Benedict XVI planned to lift the excommunication of Richard Williamson and three other bishops punished for having been consecrated without papal consent 20 years ago by the late French conservative Archbishop Marcel Lefevbre.

The Vatican declined to comment on the reports, but Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi suggested Friday that such a decree would be made public soon.

Rome's chief rabbi asked the Vatican to halt the reported rehabilitation.

Rabbi Ricardo Di Segni said it is "inconceivable" the pope didn't know Williamson's views.

The International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation also urged that the excommunications of all four — and especially Williamson — not be lifted, saying they were all opposed to pursuing relations with Jews, Protestants and Muslims.

Vatican-Jewish relations have been already strained by Jewish criticism of World War II Pope Pius XII, accused by some of not speaking out in a bid to head off the Holocaust. Israeli officials recently took offense when a senior cardinal said Gaza under the Israeli offensive seemed like a "big concentration camp."

Williamson made his comments in an interview with Swedish state TV while in Germany in November; the broadcast was aired Wednesday night.

He said the Nazis did not use gas chambers.

"I believe that the historical evidence ... is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler," he said.

Legal battles ahead
He cited what he called the "most serious" revisionists who he said had concluded that "between 200,000-300,000 perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber."

Vatican officials declined Friday to comment on his remarks.

Lefebvre rebelled against the Vatican's modernizing reforms of the 1960s, which included reaching out to other religions and replacing Latin with local languages at Mass.

Benedict has already made a concession to Lefebvre's traditionalist Society of St. Pius X in the hope of bringing it back into the Church by making the old Latin Mass more readily available. Lifting the excommunications would satisfy another key demand of the group.

Williamson's remarks could bring him legal problems in Germany. State prosecutors in Regensburg opened a preliminary investigation about whether he broke German laws against Holocaust denial.

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