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Pope resists Israeli pressure to censure Syrian President's comments

Syrian President Bashar Assad's criticism of Israel and the Jews during Pope John Paul II's visit to Damascus has left a lingering diplomatic and interreligious controversy at the Vatican.

Israeli officials quietly pressed Vatican offices for an explanation, saying they could not understand why neither the pope nor other Vatican officials have responded publicly to Assad's comments.

Less quietly, some Jewish groups have criticised what they termed the pope's "silence". One organisation called on European states to sever diplomatic ties with Syria.

Assad's speech came during a welcoming ceremony at Damascus airport on 5 May. Without specifically pronouncing the words "Israel" or "Jews", the Syrian president left no doubt about his target.

He said Palestinians were being oppressed today by a people who believed God had created them "above all other peoples".

"They try to kill all the principles of divine faiths with the same mentality of betraying Jesus Christ and torturing him," Assad said. He said "they" also had violated the sanctity of Muslim and Christian holy places.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said Assad simply presented the Syrian political position, in a manner that in the Vatican's view was clear but not harsh. The pope's own speech enunciated the more balanced Vatican position on the question of Palestinian rights, he said.

As for anti-Semitism, Navarro-Valls said, the views of the pope and the Vatican are well-known.

Meanwhile, French Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger -- a Jew by birth -- joined the Catholic delegation in Damascus and told French reporters that he considered Assad's remarks offensive and deserving of an international diplomatic protest.

Asked about the cardinal's comments, Navarro-Valls said they should not be taken seriously. He suggested that if Cardinal Lustiger wanted an international protest, he should start with his own country's president, Jacques Chirac.