Israel's top rabbis sever Vatican links

Israel's highest Jewish body severed ties with the Vatican today in protest at the Pope's decision to reinstate a bishop who publicly denied millions of Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

Briton Richard Williamson and three other bishops were excommunicated 20 years ago after right-wing Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated them without papal consent.

In an effort to bring Lefebvre's traditionalist society back within the fold, the pope lifted their ban on Saturday, provoking an uproar among Jews who deplore Williamson's views.

Israel's chief rabbinate wrote to the Holy See today expressing "sorrow and pain" at the decision. "It will be very difficult for the chief rabbinate of Israel to continue its dialogue with the Vatican as before," the letter said.

The rabbinate also cancelled a meeting with the Vatican set for March.

About six million Jews were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War.

The Pope's decision to reinstate the bishops came just days after Williamson told Swedish TV that evidence "is hugely against six million Jews being deliberately gassed." Williamson said 300,000 Jews were killed at most "but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber."

The Holocaust is an extremely sensitive issue in Israel where about 240,000 survivors live. Holocaust denial is illegal in many countries.

Today the Pope expressed his "full and indisputable solidarity" with Jews and warned against any denial of the horror of the Holocaust.

The Vatican and the rabbinate launched 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.

The Vatican and Israel have had a delicate relationship since establishing diplomatic ties in 1993.