VATICAN CITY – In a message aimed at easing the rancor over a bishop's denial of the Holocaust, Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday called the slaughter of 6 million Jews a crime against God, and the Vatican said he would make his first visit to Israel in May.
The pope met with about 60 American Jewish leaders on Thursday and assured them the Catholic Church was "profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism," issuing his strongest condemnation yet of Holocaust denial.
The furor blew up after Benedict lifted the excommunication of a traditionalist bishop who denied the Holocaust, sparking outrage among Jews and Catholics alike. The Vatican said Benedict did not know about the views of Bishop Richard Williamson when he agreed to lift the excommunication.
"The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity," Benedict told thet visiting leaders, 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.
The Vatican also said that the pope's visit to Israel — the second official visit by a pope —would take place in May. Its date had not previously been announced, and as the outrage over Williamson increased, some had questioned whether the trip would take place.
"We never had an issue with the pope but with the bishop who belittled the Holocaust," said Oded Weiner, director general of Israel's chief rabbinate.
He said theological talks between Israel's chief rabbinate and the Vatican, which had been suspended in the wake of the Williamson affair, are now planned for March 12.
Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Vatican should excommunicate Williamson again because of his remarks.
"Every moment that he stays in the church gives him credibility," he told reporters after the meeting.
"Today's statement was important but it did not bring closure," he said. "You cannot condemn Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and reinstate somone who to this day continues to be an anti-Semite and deny the Holocaust."
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 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 who were 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.