ROME – Premier Silvio Berlusconi met Jewish leaders Wednesday to patch up relations days after he was quoted as saying Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini (search) "never killed anyone."
During a one-hour meeting, the premier expressed "regret" over the pain caused by the published remarks, but he said the statements had been unfairly interpreted, Berlusconi's office said.
Berlusconi left the one-hour meeting Wednesday at Rome's main synagogue without any comment. Jewish officials said the premier expressed his regrets during the meeting, but they said they hoped he would make them publicly, not just to Jews but to all Italians.
Berlusconi's office issued a statement soon after, saying that in the meeting "the premier clarified the sense and context of his expressions.
"He expressed his regret for the pain caused to the community by exploitative interpretations that cannot be attributed to him, and which twisted his thoughts," the statement said.
Berlusconi's controversial comments appeared last Thursday in London's conservative weekly The Spectator and the Italian daily La Voce di Rimini. The remark came after one of the interviewers equated Iraq after Saddam with Italy in the years after Mussolini.
"Mussolini never killed anyone," Berlusconi was quoted as saying. "Mussolini used to send people on vacation in internal exile."
The premier said Thursday after the remarks appeared that his objection was over "the comparison of my country to another dictator or another dictatorship, that of Saddam Hussein, which caused millions of deaths."
"I did not intend to make a critical analysis of Fascism (search) or of its leader. I didn't plan to re-evaluate Mussolini," he said.
Union of Jewish Communities President Amos Luzzatto (search) said that during Wednesday's meeting, Berlusconi "apologized to us and to me in particular, but he didn't apologize to Italians. He apologized for the pain he caused me, but I said it caused me pain as an Italian and as a Jew."
"We recalled not just what the Fascist regime did to the Italians, democrats and those who didn't agree with the government, but also about what it did in general with repression and murder of its political opponents," he said.
Mussolini ruled Italy from 1922 until his ouster in 1943. Widespread persecution of Italian Jews began in 1938 when Mussolini's regime issued racial laws. In 1943, German troops occupied northern and central Italy, and almost 7,000 Jews were deported, 5,910 of whom were killed.
The Italian Jewish community now numbers about 30,000, mainly in Rome and Milan.
Despite the Mussolini controversy, Berlusconi's government has attracted some Jewish support because it is more favorable to the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon than is the center-left opposition.
Notably, when Berlusconi traveled to the Middle East last year, he met with Sharon but not with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, following the U.S. approach of isolating Arafat. Furthermore, Berlusconi has suggested that Israel be considered for membership in the European Union.
Berlusconi's policies have received praise from outside Italy, with New York's Anti-Defamation League — a group that campaigns against anti-Semitism — to present the premier its Distinguished Statesman Award at a Sept. 23 dinner in New York.