CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy, SEPT. 15, 2005 ( The two chief rabbis of Israel, Shlomo Moshe Amar and Yona Metzger, have invited Benedict XVI to visit Jerusalem.

The invitation came during a private audience today at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.

The Pope, who warmly welcomed the rabbis, told them that their visit was a "further step toward the process of building deeper religious relations between Christians and Jews."

With their offer, the two rabbis supported the invitation, made previously in a letter from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to the Bishop of Rome to visit the Holy Land.

The rabbis also asked Benedict XVI to condemn the destruction of the synagogues in Gaza, they revealed later in a press conference.

Several synagogues have been set on fire and destroyed by Palestinians, following Israel's withdrawal from the settlements in the Gaza Strip.

Rabbi Amar said the condemnation was necessary to avoid a domino effect: "Today it's a synagogue, tomorrow it will be a mosque or a church."

Oct. 18 request

The Israeli ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben Hur, who attended the press conference, said that the audience lasted between 40 and 45 minutes and was "very friendly and very warm."

The two rabbis also requested that the Pope to proclaim Oct. 18 -- the date of the publication of the Second Vatican Council's declaration "Nostra Aetate" of 1965, which was a decisive step in the reconciliation between Catholics and Jews -- as a day dedicated to the teaching of that document and to the struggle against anti-Semitism in the Catholic world.

"The Pope told us that he would try to respond in a positive way at least to part of these requests," revealed the Israeli ambassador.

During his trip last August to Cologne, Germany, Benedict XVI became the second modern Pope to visit a synagogue. John Paul II visited the synagogue of Rome in 1986.