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New criticism of pope clouds Easter

VATICAN CITY, Apr 3 – Pope Benedict XVI faced fresh criticism on Saturday after attacks on the Catholic Church over the paedophile priest furore were compared to anti-Semitism, further marring Easter Week celebrations.

Jewish groups and those representing victims of abuse by Catholic priests denounced the remarks by the pope\’s personal preacher during a Good Friday homily.

Rome\’s chief rabbi joined the chorus of criticism, saying in an interview published Saturday: "It\’s an inappropriate parallel and of dubious taste."

The comparison was not made on "any day, but on Good Friday, that is the saddest day in the history of relations between Christians and Jews," Riccardo Di Segni told the Italian daily La Stampa.

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," he wrote, according to Cantalamessa.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi later told AFP the comments were from "a letter read by the preacher and not the official position of the Vatican."

But a top official of the Central Council of Jews in Germany said he finds it highly unlikely the pope\’s preacher would make such a statement without Vatican approval.

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"It was a step taken at a high level to relativise anti-Semitism and the Holocaust," said Stephan Kramer, adding that such remarks make religious dialogue between Jews and Catholics impossible.

Benedict made no mention of the child abuse controversy during a traditional procession later Friday at Rome\’s Colosseum re-enacting Jesus Christ\’s Passion.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the largest and most active of such groups in the United States, denounced the remarks, saying they insulted "both abuse victims and Jewish people."

"The remarks are shameful, inaccurate and a complete distortion of history," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, demanding an apology from the pope himself.

The new woes for the 82-year-old pope came as he prepared to lead an Easter vigil in St Peter\’s Basilica late on Saturday.

The child abuse scandal has engulfed much of Europe and the United States, prompting harsh criticism of the Vatican\’s handling of the scourge.

The pope himself faces allegations that, as archbishop of Munich and later as the Vatican\’s chief morals enforcer, he helped to protect predator priests.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, meanwhile, told the BBC in a radio interview to be aired next week that the Irish Catholic Church had lost "all credibility" over its massive abuse scandal compounded by evidence of cover-ups by high-ranking prelates, the Times of London reported on Saturday.

Rowan Williams, the spiritual leader of more than 70 million Anglicans, called the scandal a "colossal trauma" in comments that risk creating tensions with the Vatican ahead of the pope\’s visit to Britain in September.

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Leading prelates have rallied around the pope in the run-up to Easter, the most joyous day in the Christian calendar.

The Vatican newspaper Osservatore Romano on Friday published messages of support from around the world including a letter signed by a group of 70 leading French figures "paying homage to the pope\’s will to shed light" abuse cases while expressing horror at paedophilia crimes and solidarity with the victims.
But in France the daily Liberation on Saturday carried a front page headline asking "It is time to change the pope?"

The paper concluded that while being a top theologian, Benedict XVI has demonstrated "scant political judgement during his five year pontificate and is a poor communicator, who accumulates one gaffe after another."

It doubted that the pope was up to dealing with the current crisis, saying that in the past he had shown "an incomprehension of the world as it is".

"It is down to him to respond to the expectations of his faithful and the secular world. Benedict XVI must come out of his bubble."

The pope celebrates Easter mass on Sunday, to be followed by his traditional "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) message.

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