VATICAN CITY, FEB. 12, 2009 ( Any denial or minimization of the Holocaust is "intolerable and altogether unacceptable," says Benedict XVI.

The Pope affirmed this again today when he received at the Vatican the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, in Italy in conjunction with their annual Leadership Mission to Israel.

The Holy Father's meeting with the Jewish leaders came at a key moment in Jewish-Catholic relations, which have suffered turmoil in the wake of scandal caused by a Lefebvrite prelate, Bishop Richard Williamson, who denies the gassing of the Jews. His interview aired at about the same time as the bishop, along with three other Society of St. Pius X prelates, had their excommunication lifted in the framework of the Pontiff's continuing efforts to heal the schism with the society.

The Pope and the Vatican have since made repeated statements affirming the Church's respect for the Jews. In his address today, Benedict XVI recalled his visit to Auschwitz in 2006.

"What words can adequately convey that profoundly moving experience," he asked. "As I walked through the entrance to that place of horror, the scene of such untold suffering, I meditated on the countless number of prisoners, so many of them Jews, who had trodden that same path into captivity at Auschwitz and in all the other prison camps.

"Those children of Abraham, grief-stricken and degraded, had little to sustain them beyond their faith in the God of their fathers, a faith that we Christians share with you, our brothers and sisters. How can we begin to grasp the enormity of what took place in those infamous prisons? The entire human race feels deep shame at the savage brutality shown to your people at that time."

The Pope went on to note that he is preparing his visit to Israel, which is expected in the second week of May.

Then he reflected on the 2,000 year history of the relationship between Judaism and the Church, acknowledging that it "has passed through many different phases, some of them painful to recall."

He affirmed that the Second Vatican Council declaration "Nostra Aetate" has guided the relationship since its redaction.

"The Church is profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism and to continue to build good and lasting relations between our two communities," the Bishop of Rome declared.

He added: "The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity. This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the holy Scriptures, according to which every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.

"It is beyond question that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable."

Benedict XVI concluded by urging that the memory of the Holocaust remain as a "warning to us for the future, and a summons to strive for reconciliation."

"To remember is to do everything in our power to prevent any recurrence of such a catastrophe within the human family by building bridges of lasting friendship," he said. "It is my fervent prayer that the memory of this appalling crime will strengthen our determination to heal the wounds that for too long have sullied relations between Christians and Jews. It is my heartfelt desire that the friendship we now enjoy will grow ever stronger, so that the Church's irrevocable commitment to respectful and harmonious relations with the people of the Covenant will bear fruit in abundance."

The representative of the Jewish leaders who greeted the Pope was Rabbi Arthur Schneier, president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. This rabbi welcomed the Pope at the Park East Synagogue during the apostolic visit to New York last April.

"As a Holocaust survivor, these have been painful and difficult days, when confronted with Holocaust-denial by no less than a bishop of the Society of St. Pius X," Schneier affirmed. "Victims of the Holocaust have not given us the right to forgive the perpetrators nor the Holocaust deniers. Thank you for understanding our pain and anguish."