ROME (JTA) -- Pope Benedict XVI praised the development of Catholic-Jewish relations over the past four decades and renewed commitment to dialogue.
"What has happened in these forty years must be seen as a great gift from the Lord and a reason for heartfelt gratitude towards the One who guides our steps with his infinite and eternal wisdom," he told a senior delegation from B'nai B'rith international at an audience Wednesday at the Vatican.
It was his first private audience with an international Jewish delegation since the May 1 beatification of Pope John Paul II, who had made bettering Jewish-Catholic ties a priority of his papacy.
Formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue got under way after the Vatican's Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965 urged interfaith contacts.
Benedict noted "the desire of Catholics and Jews to stand together in meeting the immense challenges facing our communities in a rapidly changing world and, significantly, our shared religious duty to combat poverty, injustice, discrimination and the denial of universal human rights."
The B'nai B'rith delegation, led by B'nai B'rith International Interim President Allan J. Jacobs and Executive Vice President Daniel S. Mariaschin, raised concerns over developments in the Middle East, including the continuing captivity of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and the role of religious and political extremism in preventing regional peace.
Jacobs thanked the pontiff for his past statements on Israel's legitimacy and right to self-defense and urged the church to encourage fairness and care in addressing the region's complexities and oppose narratives and measures that single out Israel or Israelis for targeting.
In meetings with other Vatican officials, the delegation raised sticking points including the failure to open Vatican secret archives in order to clarify the World War II role of Pope Pius XII.
The delegation also met with Italian leaders including president of the Chamber of Deputies Gainfranco Fini.
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