Pope Francis ambushed over whether Israel should be recognised as Jewish state

Pope Francis visits Rome's Great Synagogue, Italy January 17, 2016.Reuters

The head of the delegation of Israeli rabbis present at Pope Francis' visit to Rome's Great Synagogue has revealed he put him on the spot over the Vatican's relationship to Israel.

Rabbi Dr Ratzon Arusi told the Arutz Sheva news service that during the visit he turned to the Pope and asked him to declare that the Vatican recognises Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

He said the Pope, clearly embarrassed, responded with silence.

Francis used his visit to the synagogue to condemn religious violence, saying: "The violence of man against man is in contradiction with any religion worthy of this name, in particular the three great monotheistic religions [Judaism, Christianity and Islam].

"Conflicts, wars, violence and injustices open deep wounds in humanity that call on us to strengthen our commitment to peace and justice. Neither violence nor death will ever have the last word before God."

Rabbi Arusi told Arutz Sheva: "The Church ignores the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, they talk about the Holy Land, but not about the state of Israel.

"Therefore during the meeting with the rabbis after the public event, I turned to the Pope and I told him that we appreciate his words against anti-Semitism, but today there is a new and very fierce anti-Semitism built on the basis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Referring to the British politician whose support for the state of Israel was crucial to its establishment, he said he had urged the Pope to be "the Balfour of the Catholic church, and since the land of Israel is the Holy Land and they recognise our birthright, they should declare that the state of Israel is the state of the Jewish people by virtue of the Bible, without diminishing the rights of the Palestinians to a state".

Arusi said the Pope was "very embarrassed by my request, he was never told that directly, and afterwards he smiled but didn't say a thing". He added: "I think that the time has come for them to indeed recognise the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people."

The recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is a highly controversial issue as it has implications for the country's sizeable Arab population, which includes Christians and Muslims.

Rome's recognition of the Palestinian state has infuriated right-wing activists, with Israel calling the accord a hasty move that could damage prospects for advancing a peace agreement and impact its future diplomatic relations with the Vatican.