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Israel's Olmert confirms Pope to visit in May

Pope Benedict XVI greets the crowd gathered below in Saint Peter's square during his weekly Angelus prayers at the Vatican February 15, 2009. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Pope Benedict will visit Israel in May, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday, confirming the spring pilgrimage and avoiding any mention of tense Catholic-Jewish relations over a Holocaust-denying bishop.

“This May, we will receive a special visitor, Pope Benedict XVI,” Olmert told his cabinet, without giving an exact date. “President Shimon Peres will accompany him to various sites in Israel.”

Olmert, who is usually effusive in his praise of friendly foreign leaders, said matter-of-factly that he hoped Benedict’s pilgrimage “would be conducted in the proper atmosphere and be as successful as the previous pope’s visit.”

Benedict confirmed Thursday he would go to Israel, and Vatican sources said the trip, the first by a pope to the Holy Land since John Paul visited in 2000, was expected in May.

Catholic-Jewish relations have been extremely tense since January 24, when Benedict lifted excommunications of four renegade traditionalist bishops in an attempt to heal a schism that began in 1988 when they were ordained without Vatican permission.

One of the bishops, Richard Williamson, denies the full extent of the Holocaust and says there were no gas chambers.

The Vatican has ordered him to recant but he so far has not done so, saying he needs more time to review the evidence.

Faced with Jewish anger over Williamson’s remarks on the Holocaust, the pope said during a meeting with American Jewish leaders Thursday that “any denial or minimisation of this terrible crime is introlerable.”

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche