Pope Benedict on Saturday rehabilitated a traditionalist bishop who denies the Holocaust, despite warnings from Jewish leaders that it would seriously harm Catholic-Jewish relations and foment anti-Semitism.
The Vatican said the pope issued a decree lifting the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops who were thrown out of the Roman Catholic Church in 1988 for being ordained without Vatican permission.
One of the four bishops, the British-born Richard Williamson, has made a number of statements denying the full extent of the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews.
In comments to Swedish television broadcast on Wednesday he said, "I believe that the historical evidence is hugely against 6 million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler ... I believe there were no gas chambers".
Williamson said he agreed with "revisionists" who say that "between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber".
Before the excommunication was lifted, leaders in the Jewish community, including groups of Holocaust survivors, said such a move would be a dangerous blow to half a century of interfaith dialogue.
On Friday Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said the possibility that the pope would accept Williamson back into the mainstream church "has been received with shock and consternation".
Pain of the Holocaust
"For the Jewish people and all persons who feel the pain of the terrible years of the Shoah, this development marks a dangerous blow to interfaith dialogue and encourages hate-mongers everywhere," he told Reuters.
Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, said he was "shocked by such a horror of denial, which is even more grave since it comes from a bishop".
Di Segni told the newspaper La Stampa that Williamson's re-admission into the Church would open "a deep wound in dialogue with Judaism".
The traditionalist bishops reject many reforms of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, notably its decision that Mass should be said in local languages rather than Latin, and its advocacy of dialogue with other religions.
A statement from the traditionalists said the implication they are racist was "entirely false and unjust".
But it said the group had the right to "pray for conversion (of Jews) to the true faith, to study their recent and tragic history, or to question some of their political objectives".
At the end of the Swedish interview, William says he realizes he could go to jail for Holocaust denial in Germany.
Pope Benedict has already made several gestures of reconciliation to the schismatic group, including allowing the unconditional return of the old-style Latin Mass.
That move angered Jews because the ceremony includes a Good Friday prayer for their conversion.