Pope Benedict XVI has expressed “full and indisputable solidarity” with Jews, distancing himself from a bishop who denies the Nazis used gas chambers.

Briton Richard Williamson was among four bishops whose excommunications were lifted by the Pope last week.

Bishop Williamson said recently: “I believe there were no gas chambers”.

Jewish leaders, marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, reacted angrily to the rehabilitation of the bishop, saying it had harmed Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

The Pope told a Vatican audience on Wednesday the Holocaust “should be a warning for all against forgetting, denial and reductionism”.

“While I renew with affection the expression of my full and unquestionable solidarity with our [Jewish] brothers, I hope the memory of the Shoah [Holocaust] will induce humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of hate when it conquers the heart of man,” he said.

But Nobel Peace Prize winner and death camp survivor Elie Wiesel said that the Pope, by lifting the excommunications, had given credence to “the most vulgar aspect of anti-Semitism”.

Decision ‘disturbing’

“What does the Pope think we feel when he did that?” Mr Wiesel said to Reuters news agency.

“That a man who is a bishop and Holocaust denier – and today of course the most vulgar aspect of anti-Semitism is Holocaust denial – and for the Pope to go that far and do what he did, knowing what he knows, is disturbing.”

Mr Wiesel agreed with other Jewish leaders who said the episode could be a setback in the fight against anti-Semitism.

“One thing is clear: this move by the Pope surely will not help us fight anti-Semitism. Quite the opposite,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel – the supreme Jewish governing body in the country – broke off official ties with the Vatican in protest over the Pope’s decision.

Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear Yishuv Cohen, chairman of the Rabbinate’s commission, told The Jerusalem Post that he expected Bishop Williamson to publicly retract his statements before links could be renewed.

“I understand the Pope’s efforts to bring about unity in the Church, but he should be aware that, indirectly, he hurt Jews. We expect him to do the best to repair the situation,” he told the paper.

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that following the Pope’s words at the audience, he hoped the Israeli Rabbinate would re-think its position and continue “fruitful and serene dialogue”.

Pope Benedict brought the four bishops back into the Catholic fold to heal a schism with traditionalists.

He has asked them to recognise “the authority of the Pope and the Second Vatican Council”.

The four were members of the Swiss-based “Lefebvrist” fraternity, which rejected the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious freedom and pluralism.