VATICAN CITY (AFP) — The Vatican on Friday sought to set the record straight after accusations of allowing anti-Semitism, saying it condemned all forms of discrimination against Jews.
Jewish leaders last month slammed the pope for his refusal to abolish a prayer in the Latin mass on Good Friday -- the day that commemorates the death of Jesus Christ -- in which Roman Catholics pray for the conversion of Jews.
A statement said the Holy See wished to give an assurance that the new formulation of the prayer "in no way intends to indicate a change in the Catholic Church's regard for the Jews."
It stressed the "unique bond with which the people of the New Testament is spiritually linked with the stock of Abraham and rejects every attitude of contempt or discrimination against Jews, firmly repudiating any kind of anti-Semitism."
The "Prayer for Jews" was dropped in the 1960s, but reappeared last year after Benedict restored the Latin Rite mass. It was toned down but retains the call for Jews to be converted.
Berlin rabbi Walter Homolka said Jews found its message deeply offensive.
"A message like this serves to stimulate anti-Semitic circles," he told the online site of the newsweekly Der Spiegel.
"The Church does not have its anti-Semitic tendencies under control."
The vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Salomon Korn, told the daily Frankfurter Rundschau that Jews expected more sensitivity from a German pope due to the country's Nazi past.
"This is a return to times we thought we had overcome," Korn said, referring to the period two decades ago, before the Catholic Church apologised for its passivity and even complicity during the Holocaust.
The Vatican statement stressed the fundamental principles which continued to sustain "the bonds of esteem, dialogue, love, solidarity and collaboration between Catholics and Jews."
The Holy See hoped the explanations made in the statement would "help to clarify any misunderstanding," it continued, adding: "It reiterates the unwavering desire that the concrete progress made in mutual understanding and the growth in esteem between Jews and Christians will continue to develop."
The statement was issued a few days before the pope is scheduled to meet members of the US Jewish community, the most significant after Israel itself.
Pope Benedict XVI will visit a synagogue and hold a private meeting with Jewish leaders during his historic trip to the United States this month, Church officials announced.
A US-based Vatican observer said the last-minute additions during the April 15-20 trip were an exercise in "damage control" by the pontiff, who has stirred some criticism from both Jewish and Muslim communities.
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