The Associated Press Published: January 28, 2009

JERUSALEM: Israel’s chief rabbinate severed ties with the Vatican on Wednesday to protest a papal decision to reinstate a bishop who publicly denied that six million Jews were killed during World War II.

The action came on the same day that Pope Benedict XVI expressed his “full and indisputable solidarity” with Jews and warned against any denial of the Holocaust.

Israel’s highest religious authority sent a letter to the Holy See expressing “sorrow and pain” at the papal decision.

“It will be very difficult for the chief rabbinate of Israel to continue its dialogue with the Vatican as before,” the letter said. Chief rabbis of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews were parties to the letter.

The rabbinate also canceled a meeting with the Vatican set for March. The rabbinate and the state of Israel have separate ties with the Vatican, and the move Wednesday does not affect state relations.

The Vatican’s spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican hoped that in light of the pope’s words, “the difficulties expressed by the Israeli Rabbinate can be subjected to further and deeper reflection.”

Lombardi expressed hope that dialogue between the two parties could continue “fruitfully and serenely.”

Oded Weiner, the director general of the chief rabbinate’s office, welcomed the pope’s remarks, calling them “a big step toward reconciliation.”

With his comments, the pope reached out to Jews angered by his decision to rehabilitate Bishop Richard Williamson, who told Swedish TV in an interview broadcast last week that evidence “is hugely against six million Jews being deliberately gassed.” He said that 300,000 Jews were killed at most, “but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber.”

About six million Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. Many were gassed in death camps, while others were killed en masse in other ways, including shooting and starvation. About 240,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel.

Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Israel’s quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, denounced the Vatican for bringing a Holocaust denier back into the fold.

The Vatican quickly distanced itself from Williamson’s comments and said that removing the excommunication by no means implied that the Vatican shared his views.

Benedict said Wednesday that the traditionalist movement to which the four bishops belong would have to prove its loyalty to the papacy and the teachings of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, which the four have rejected.

Among the council’s teachings was the view that Jews could not be held responsible for Christ’s death and that all religions should be respected.

Williamson and three other bishops were excommunicated 20 years ago after they were consecrated by an ultraconservative archbishop without papal consent – a move that the Vatican at the time called an act of schism.

Benedict said Wednesday he had lifted the excommunication because the bishops had “repeatedly shown their deep suffering over the situation.”

The German-born Benedict expressed his “full and indisputable solidarity” with Jews. Speaking at his weekly audience, he said the Holocaust should remain a warning to all humanity.

“While I renew with affection the expression of my full and unquestionable solidarity with our brothers,” the pope said of Jews, “I hope the memory of the Shoah will induce humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of hate when it conquers the heart of man.” Shoah is the Hebrew word for the Holocaust.

He recalled his visits to the Auschwitz death camp – including as pope in May 2006 – and the “brutal massacre of millions of Jews, innocent victims of blind racial and religious hatred.”

The Vatican and the rabbinate began formal relations in 2000 when Pope John Paul II visited Jerusalem. Since then, delegates from the Holy See and the rabbinate have met twice a year to discuss religious issues. This is the first time ties have been severed.

The Vatican and the state of Israel have had their own relationship since establishing diplomatic ties in 1993.

Jewish leaders’ reaction to Benedict’s comments were mixed Wednesday.

“We still want to be reassured that the views that Williamson expressed have no place in the church,” said Rabbi David Rosen, head of inter-religious dialogue for the American Jewish Committee. “We appreciate his sincerity, but our concern is that there should not be any room for mixed messages.”

Elie Wiesel, a death camp survivor, author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said Benedict had given credence to “the most vulgar aspect of anti-Semitism” by rehabilitating Williamson.