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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Friday rejected an apology from a bishop whose denial of the Holocaust caused international uproar between Jews and Catholics, saying it did not meet its demand for a full and public recanting.
Jewish groups praised the Vatican for its tough stand, which Vatican sources said will likely make it harder for the traditionalist bishop to be fully re-admitted into the Church and lead to greater scrutiny of the society to which he belongs.
British Bishop Richard Williamson, who was ordered to leave Argentina and is now in his homeland, on Thursday issued a statement in which he said, "To all souls that took honest scandal from what I said, before God I apologize."
Chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Williamson's statement "does not seem to respect the conditions" set forth by the Vatican on February 4, when it ordered him to "in an absolutely unequivocal and public way distance himself from his positions" regarding the Holocaust.
On January 24, Pope Benedict lifted the excommunications of Williamson and three other bishops to try to heal a 20-year-old schism that began when they were thrown out of the Church for being ordained without the permission of Pope John Paul II.
Among those who condemned Williamson and the pope's decision were Holocaust survivors, progressive Catholics, members of the U.S. Congress, Israel's Chief Rabbinate, German Jewish leaders and Jewish writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.
Williamson told Swedish television in an interview broadcast on January 21, "I believe there were no gas chambers." He said no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by most historians.
In his statement on Thursday, Williamson said, "I can truthfully say that I regret having made such remarks, and that if I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the Church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them."
Jewish groups praised the Vatican for not accepting Williamson's apology.
"The Vatican clearly understands the critical issue here," said David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "Williamson still refuses to acknowledge the Holocaust as a historical fact. Until he explicitly says otherwise, he remains in the camp of the Holocaust deniers. He is not fooling anyone, least of all the Vatican."
"We commend the Vatican for standing firm and not permitting a person who believes that the Nazi Holocaust is a lie to have any role in the Church," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Even before the Vatican rejected Williamson's statement, Jewish groups branded his apology as shallow and empty.
"As he clearly failed to retract his malicious lies, Williamson has again shown that he is a staunch anti-Semite and incorrigible Holocaust denier who doubts the genocide of six million Jewish people," said Charlotte Knobloch, President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
Williamson made his comments denying the Holocaust in Germany, where such comments are a crime.
Williamson arrived in Britain earlier this week after he was ordered to leave Argentina, where he was director of a seminary of the ultra-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X (SSPX).
The controversy over Williamson's comments and the pope's decision to lift his excommunication led to the worst crisis in Catholic-Jewish relations in half a century.
On February 12 the pope, in an attempt to defuse the crisis, told Jewish leaders that "any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable," especially from a clergyman.
The row over Williamson has led many to take a closer look at the SSPX, its view of Jews and its future in the Church.
The Vatican says that before the SSPX can be fully readmitted into the Church, its leaders and members must first accept the teachings of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, which urged respect for Judaism and other religions.
A key Council document repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Christ's death.
Additional reporting by Madeline Chambers in Berlin and Catherine Bosley and Luke Baker in London; Editing by Matthew Jones