Attacks on the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict over a sex abuse scandal are comparable to "collective violence" against Jews, the pontiff's personal preacher has said.
Father Raniero Cantalamessa drew the parallel at a Good Friday service, the day Christians commemorate Jesus' crucifixion.
The sermon, which was attended by the Pope, drew sharp criticism from both Jews and victims of sexual abuse by priests.
It further raised tensions over the abuse scandal, forcing even the Vatican spokesman to distance himself from Cantalamessa, the only person authorised to preach to the pope.
Noting that this year the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter fell during the same week, he said Jews throughout history had been the victims of "collective violence" and drew comparisons between Jewish suffering and attacks on the Church.
As the pope listened, Cantalamessa read the congregation a part of a letter he received from an unnamed Jewish friend, who said he was "following with disgust the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the pope".
"The use of stereotypes, the shifting of personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," he quoted from the letter.
Elan Steinberg, the vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said: "Shame on Father Cantalamessa.
"The Vatican is entitled to defend itself but the comparison with anti-Semitic persecution is offensive and unsustainable. We are sorely disappointed."
Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said: "This should not be interpreted as an official position of the Vatican."
But some Jewish groups demanded a personal apology from the pope for the words read by his preacher.
|The child abuse scandal has engulfed much of Europe and the United States [AFP]
"These hurtful remarks were made in the presence of the pope and the pope himself should take responsiblity and apologise for them," Rabbi Marvin, the heir of Simon Wiesenthal Center, the international Jewish human rights group, said.
The pope, both at the service where Cantalamessa preached as well as at a "Way of the Cross" service for thousands of people later at the Colosseum, made no reference to the abuse scandal.
This week's celebrations leading up to Easter Sunday have been clouded by accusations that the Church in several countries mishandled and covered up episodes of sexual abuseof children by priests, some dating back decades.
Shaken by the crisis, the Vatican has accused the media of an "ignoble" attempt to smear the popeat all costs.
Some news reports have accused him of negligence in handling sexual abuse casesin previous roles as a cardinal in his native Germany and in Rome.
Victims of sexual abuse have also criticised Cantalamessa.
David Clohessy, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the preacher's comments would intimidate victims and make them feel ashamed.
The Netherlands: 200 cases of sexual abuse being investigated
Switzerland: 60 cases being investigated
Germany: 300 reported cases of sexual abuse
"It's absolutely heartbreaking," he told Al Jazeera from the US state of Missouri.
"The church right now should be welcoming victims and begging victims to speak out. But these kind of harsh unjustified attacks will simply help keep victims silent and actually help protect perpetrators."
As revelations of sexual abuse and alleged cover-ups have surfaced almost daily in Europe over the past weeks, the Vatican has said the guilt of individuals who committed crimes, however heinous, cannot be shifted to the pope or the entire Church.
The Vatican has denied any cover-up over the abuse of 200 deaf boys in the United States by Reverend Lawrence Murphy from 1950 to 1974.
The New York Times reported the Vatican and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, were warned about Murphy but he was not dismissed.
The Vatican has also said the pope, when he was Archbishop of Munich, was not aware that a German priest who underwent therapy after he sexually abused children was later allowed to return to the ministry. The priest later abused children again.
The Vatican says that decision was taken by a subordinate, not by the future pope.