ROME (AFP)---Jewish outrage after the pope's preacher evoked a parallel between anti-Semitism and attacks on the Vatican over priestly paedophilia fanned simmering tensions between the Catholic and Jewish faiths.
"The remarks are shameful, inaccurate and a complete distortion of history," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, demanding an apology from the pope himself.
Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni agreed, saying: "It's an inappropriate parallel and of dubious taste."
The parallel was drawn in a letter that Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the Papal Household, said he received from an unnamed Jewish friend.
"The stereotyping, the transfer of personal responsibility and blame to a collective blame reminds me of the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," the friend wrote, according to Cantalamessa.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi later told AFP the comments were "not the official position of the Vatican."
He followed up the next day by saying Cantalamessa "only wanted to publicise the solidarity with the pope expressed by a Jew reflecting in particular the experience of the pain suffered by his own people."
But a top official of the Central Council of Jews in Germany said he foundit highly unlikely the pope's preacher would make such a statement without Vatican approval.
"It was a step taken at a high level to relativise anti-Semitism and the Holocaust," said Secretary General Stephan Kramer, adding that such remarks make religious dialogue between Jews and Catholics impossible.
"It is impertinent and an insult to the victims of sexual abuse as well as victims of the Holocaust," Kramer told AFP.
Moreover, the comparison was highlighted not on "any day, but on Good Friday, that is the saddest day in the history of relations between Christians and Jews," Di Spegni told the Italian daily La Stampa.
For centuries until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Jews were held responsible for Jesus' death -- the event commemorated on Good Friday.
But Benedict in 2008 allowed the revival of a Good Friday prayer "for the conversion of the Jews," which had been thrown out by Vatican II but is now an option again for traditionalist parishes.
It was one of several moves that have upset Jews since Benedict's election in 2005.
Later in 2008, the pope again infuriated the Jewish community with a decision to lift the excommunication of a known Holocaust denier, English bishop Richard Williamson.
Catholic-Jewish relations had since improved with a series of fence-mending statements and gestures by the Vatican and the pontiff, notably Benedict's trip to Israel in May last year during which he prayed at Jerusalem's Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall.
But in December Jews were up in arms once again when the pope moved his World War II-era predecessor Pius XII a step closer to sainthood with a decree bestowing the title "venerable."
The Catholic Church has long argued that Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, saved many Jews who were hidden away in religious institutions, and that his silence was born out of a wish to avoid aggravating their situation.
But the decision jeopardised a planned visit to Rome's main synagogue in January, with high-profile stayaways including the president of Italy's assembly of rabbis, Giuseppe Laras.
"We have come a long way, and we still have a long way to go together to establish a firm foundation in terms of dialogue and cooperation," Arthur Schneier, a rabbi and Holocaust survivor who hosted Benedict during his NewYork visit, said at the time.
Critics and sympathisers alike have questioned the pope's communication skills -- especially compared with those of his media-savvy predecessor John Paul II.