VATICAN CITY, JAN. 18, 2005 ( John Paul II called for reinforcement of dialogue between Catholics and Jews when he received in audience a group of about 160 Jewish leaders, rabbis, cantors and their relatives.

The unprecedented meeting -- never before had so many rabbis gone to the Vatican for a private audience with the Pope -- was requested by the New York-based Pave the Way Foundation.

Today's event aimed to help commemorate the 40th anniversary this year of the Second Vatican Council declaration "Nostra Aetate," which marked a key turn in Judeo-Christian dialogue.

In addition, Gary Krupp, president of Pave the Way, proposed the meeting as an opportunity to thank John Paul II for the extraordinary effort made in his life, especially during his 26-year pontificate, to combat anti-Semitism.

The Holy Father, in a brief address to his guests in English, said: "May this be an occasion for renewed commitment to increased understanding and cooperation in the service of building a world ever more firmly based on respect for the divine image in every human being."

"Upon all of you, I invoke the abundant blessings of the Almighty and, in particular, the gift of peace," he said. "Shalom aleichem."

Greeting the Pope on behalf of those present, Gary Krupp reviewed the gestures of this pontificate that have advanced the dialogue between Catholics and Jews.

"Soon after your ascension to the throne of St. Peter, you made a telling trip to Auschwitz in order to pay homage to victims of the Holocaust," Krupp said. "You have defended the Jewish people at every opportunity, as a priest in Poland and during your 26-year pontificate.

"You have denounced anti-Semitism as a 'sin against God and humanity.' This tone of reconciliation has been the cornerstone of your papacy and its relations with the Jewish people."

Krupp recalled that John Paul II has been the first Pope "since St. Peter to visit a synagogue."

He continued: "Your pilgrimage to Israel and the Holy Land on March 21, 2000, was immortalized in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people around the world, when you placed your prayer asking for forgiveness in the Western Wall."

"For your acts of love of all humankind and your implacable pursuit of peace and reconciliation of all faiths," the Jewish representative said, "Your Holiness truly is the personification of these ideals and spirit of Aaron, the high priest of ancient Israel."

"My prayerful wish," Krupp added, "is that Jews, Christians and Muslims, the three children of Abraham, may soon bond together in one common cause and voice, to defend all humanity against those who defame God by committing wanton acts of violence in his holy name." He concluded by thrice saying "Thank you" and "Shalom."

On the eve of the meeting, Krupp announced that the Vatican has given permission for the loan of the manuscripts of the great Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides (1138-1204), along with other writings, to the Israel Museum for its 40th-anniversary exhibit this spring.

At the audience, three rabbis pronounced a blessing on John Paul II, and the meeting ended with a chant.