VATICAN CITY Pope Benedict, trying to defuse a controversy over a bishop who denies the Holocaust, said on Thursday "any denial or minimisation of this terrible crime is intolerable", especially if it comes from a clergyman.
The pope also confirmed for the first time that he was planning to visit Israel. Vatican sources say the trip is expected for May. It would be the first by a pope since John Paul visited in 2000.
Benedict 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 pope told 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 ..."
The German pope 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."
PRAYER FOR FORGIVENESS
The pope repeated a prayer the late Pope John Paul II used when he visited Jerusalem's Western Wall and asked forgiveness from Jews for Christians who had persecuted them in past centuries.
He added in his own words: "I now make his prayer my own."
Catholic-Jewish relations have been extremely tense since Jan. 24, when Benedict lifted excommunications of four renegade traditionalist bishops in an attempt to heal a schism that began in 1988 when they were ordained without Vatican permission.
Williamson, a member of the ultra-traditionalist Society of St Pius X (SSPX), told Swedish television in an interview broadcast on Jan. 21: "I believe there were no gas chambers."
He said no more than 300,000 Jews died in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by most historians.
The Vatican has ordered him to recant but he so far has not done so, saying he needs more time to review the evidence.
"This terrible chapter in our history (the Holocaust) must never be forgotten," the pope told the delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations.
In his address to the pope, Rabbi Arther Schneier, who hosted the pontiff at his synagogue in New York last year, emotionally told the pontiff:
"As a Holocaust survivor, these have been painful and difficult days, when confronted with Holocaust-denial by no less than a bishop of the Society of St Pius X ....
"Victims of the Holocaust have not given us the right to forgive the perpetrators nor the Holocaust deniers. Thank you for understanding our pain and anguish ..."
Later at a news conference the leaders declared themselves satisfied. "We came a long way. We travelled to share our pain, to share our disbelief but we are leaving with renewed hope of stronger bonds between Catholics and Jews," Schneier said.
While the excommunications of the traditionalist bishops have been lifted, they and members of the SSPX will not be fully readmitted to the Church until they formally accept the teachings of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council.
One of that historic gathering's key documents was a declaration called "Nostra Aetate" (In Our Times). It repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Christ's death and urged dialogue with other religions.