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A question mark hangs over Pope Benedict XVI's planned trip to Israel in May after Israeli officials expressed outrage over a Vatican statement comparing Gaza to a "big concentration camp".
The Pope today condemned the use of violence by both Israel and Hamas in his annual speech to diplomats accredited to the Holy See. "Once again I would repeat that military options are no solution and that violence, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, must be firmly condemned," he said in an even-handed address.
He rejected "hatred, acts of provocation and the use of arms" and deplored the renewed outbreak of violence in Gaza which was "provoking immense damage and suffering for the civilian population".
Echoing Pope Benedict's calls for an end to the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, urged Israeli and Hamas to be "more willing" to hold peace talks. He accused both sides of only thinking of their own interests while civilians paid the price.
Cardinal Martino expressed concern over the humanitarian situation, saying "Let's look at the conditions in Gaza: these increasingly resemble a big concentration camp."
He added: "Defenceless populations are always the ones who pay."
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said that this amounted to "Hamas propaganda", and accused the cardinal of ignoring Hamas's "numerous crimes". "This does not bring the people closer to truth and peace," it said.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which monitors anti-Semitism and tracks down Nazi war criminals, attacked Cardinal Martino for making remarks that were "untrue, distort the memory of the Holocaust and are only used against Israel by terrorist organizations and Holocaust deniers".
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the centre, said: "The cardinal should know that however difficult conditions may be in Gaza, the one thing it surely is not is a concentration camp where Jews were brought to die either by slave labour, starvation, or in most cases burned in the crematorium."
Cardinal Martino made his comments to the Italian website IlSussidiario.net. He said that Christians "are not the only ones to call this land 'holy', Jews and Muslims do so too. The fact that this land is the scene of bloodshed seems a great tragedy. If they can't come to an agreement, then someone else should do it. The world cannot sit back and watch without doing anything."
No official date has been set for Pope Benedict's visit to the Holy Land. Vatican officials have visited the area to make advance plans, and have let it be known that the trip was likely to take place in May, with the pontiff visiting Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.
Israel and the Vatican are also at odds over continuing plans for the beatification of Pius XII, the wartime pontiff accused by critics of remaining silent over the fate of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust in the Second World War. The move, if approved by Pope Benedict, would put Pius XII on the road to sainthood.
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