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ROME (Reuters) - The Vatican played down strains in Catholic-Jewish relations on Wednesday after a leading Italian rabbi accused Pope Benedict of wiping out 50 years of dialogue and announced a boycott of a key Church event.
Elia Enrico Richetti, chief rabbi of Venice, said Italian Jews would boycott an annual Church celebration of Judaism, set for January 17, partly because of the reintroduction last year of a prayer for the conversion of the Jews.
"If (to the prayer) we add the pope's recent statements on dialogue being useless because the Christian faith is superior, it is clear that we are moving toward the cancellation of 50 years of Church history," he wrote in the Jesuit journal Popoli.
It was the latest sign of the turbulence in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, which has been tested over everything from reaction to Israel's siege of Gaza to renewed debate over wartime Pope Pius XII's role helping Jews during the Holocaust.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official in charge of relations with Jews, said he was surprised by Richetti's remarks and defended the pope's record of pursuing dialogue.
He suggested troubles with Jews appeared to be mostly limited to Italy. "Unfortunately, here in Italy we have a few problems, a special susceptibility that we don't find either in France or in Germany or in North America," Kasper told La Stampa newspaper.
Striking a moderate tone, Rome's Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni agreed dialogue "must move ahead despite difficulties" and acknowledged that the pope had made some contributions.
Last year the Vatican revised a contested Latin prayer used by traditionalist Catholics. But Jews criticized the new version because it still says they should recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men and it kept an underlying call to conversion.
Another factor that has strained relations is Pope Pius XII, who some Jews say turned a blind eye to the Holocaust. The Vatican says he worked quietly behind the scenes to save Jews.
Benedict could visit Holy Land sites in Israel and the occupied West Bank in May but some diplomats say Israel's siege of Gaza has put the possible trip into doubt.
One of the pope's top aides, Cardinal Renato Martino, last week angered Israel by calling Gaza "a big concentration camp."
Reporting by Phil Stewart, editing by Mark Trevelyan