Pope Benedict, trying to defuse a controversy over a bishop who denies the Holocaust, on Thursday said that "any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable", especially if it comes from a clergyman.
The pope made the comments in his first meeting with Jews since the controversy
over traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson began in late January. Williamson denies
the full extent of the Holocaust and says there were no gas chambers.
The German-born Benedict issued his strongest condemnation yet of Holocaust denial during the meeting.
He told about 60 American Jewish leaders, "The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah (Holocaust) was a crime against humanity. This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures ..."
He went on to affirm that the Catholic Church was "profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism."
The pope also confirmed that he was planning to visit Israel.
Vatican sources say the trip is expected for May.
Benedict's trip, which had been planned before the Williamson affair surfaced, would be the second official visit by a pope to Israel.
Rabbi David Rosen, who represented the American Jewish Committee at the meeting in Rome, said that "the Pope made it unequivocally clear to us that he will not tolerate anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in the Catholic Church. This was an important reaffirmation of the Holy See's commitment to advancing Catholic-Jewish relations on the historic foundations laid by Pope Benedict's predecessors."
Benedict recalled his own visit to the death camp at Auschwitz in 2006 and, in some of the strongest words he has ever spoken about the Holocaust and relations with Jews, said, "It is my fervent prayer that the memory of this appalling crime will strengthen our determination to heal the wounds that for too long have sullied relations between Christians and Jews."
He repeated the prayer that the late Pope John Paul used when he visited Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2000 and asked forgiveness from Jews for Christians who had persecuted them in past centuries. "I now make his prayer my own," he added in his own words.
"This terrible chapter in our history (the Holocaust) must never be forgotten," the pope told the Jewish delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, adding that he hoped relations between Catholics and Jews can now grow stronger.
Catholic-Jewish relations have been extremely tense since January 24, when Benedict readmitted four renegade traditionalist bishops to the Catholic faith in an attempt to heal a schism that began in 1988 when they were ordained without Vatican permission.
Williamson told Swedish television in an interview broadcast on January 21, "I believe there were no gas chambers." He said no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by most historians.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report