Image: Pope Benedict XVI
Gregorio Borgia  /  AP
Pope Benedict XVI leads a vigil at the end of a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, on Wednesday.
updated 2/12/2009 8:16:23 AM ET 2009-02-12T13:16:23

Pope Benedict XVI said Thursday any minimization of the Holocaust was unacceptable, especially for a priest, as he met with Jewish leaders in hopes of ending the rancor over a bishop who denied 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis.

The German-born Benedict also confirmed that he planned to visit Israel in May, in what would be the second official visit by a pope.

The Vatican scheduled the pope's audience with about 60 American Jewish leaders Thursday after Benedict lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who denied the Holocaust, sparking outrage among Jews and Catholics alike.

Issuing his strongest condemnation of Holocaust denial yet, Benedict affirmed the Catholic Church was "profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism."

"The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity," Benedict said, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. "This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures."

"It is beyond question that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable," he said during the meeting in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace.

Jewish leaders applauded his comments, saying the crisis with the church that had been sparked by Bishop Richard Williamson's comments was over.

In an interview with Swedish state TV broadcast Jan. 21, Williamson denied that any Jews were gassed during World War II. He said only about 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed, but none of them gassed.

The Vatican said Benedict did not know of Williamson's views when he agreed to lift the excommunication, and stressed that it did not in any way share Williamson's views. But confronted with mounting Jewish outrage, the Vatican demanded Williamson recant before he would be fully admitted as a bishop into the church.

Williamson has apologized for causing distress to the pope, but has not recanted. He said he would correct himself if he is satisfied by the evidence, but insisted in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that examining it "will take time."

Benedict lifted the excommunication of Williamson and three other bishops consecrated by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre without papal consent in 1988. Lefebvre founded the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X in 1969, opposed to the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, particularly its outreach to Jews.

Benedict's trip in May, which had been planned before the Williamson affair surfaced, would be the second official visit by a pope to Israel.

Pope John Paul II made the first official visit in 2000.

The only other visit by a pope, in 1964, reflected the strained nature of the relationship in those years. Pope Paul VI spent only part of one day in Israel, and never ventured into Jewish west Jerusalem. He never uttered the word "Israel" in public.

More on Pope Benedict | Richard Williamson

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