Pope Francis Speaks About Israel and Anti-Semitism, Jewish Leaders Say

In addition to leading his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square on October 28, pictured here, Pope Francis met with Jewish leaders on the 50th anniversary of the Nostra Aetate declaration. Stefano Rellandini/REUTERS

While meeting with Jewish leaders at the Vatican on Wednesday, Pope Francis reportedly said that attacks on Israel are anti-Semitic, according to the World Jewish Congress (WJC).

"To attack Jews is anti-Semitism, but an outright attack on the State of Israel is also anti-Semitism. There may be political disagreements between governments and on political issues, but the State of Israel has every right to exist in safety and prosperity," Pope Francis apparently said during a private meeting with Jewish leaders, according to the WJC, which represents Jewish communities and organizations around the world.

The Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations confirmed that the pope met with representatives for the WJC and other Jewish leaders but would not confirm those particular remarks.

The meeting was meant to commemorate 50 years since Pope Paul VI proclaimed the Nostra Aetate, or the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. The 1965 declaration said that "most of the early disciples who proclaimed Christ's Gospel to the world sprang from the Jewish people" and that "the Church...decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone."

In a statement, the WJC said the Nostra Aetate "completely transformed and improved relations between Jews and Catholics." The group also praised Pope Francis for commemorating the anniversary.

"His clear and unequivocal support for the Jewish people is critical to us," Ronald Lauder, president of the WJC, said about the pope in a statement.

The pope's apparent comments echo those he reportedly made to a Portuguese-Israeli journalist in May, when the journalist quoted him as saying, "Whoever does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel is guilty of anti-Semitism."

At his weekly address in St. Peter's Square Wednesday, the pope said, according to an official Vatican statement, "The Council, with the Declaration 'Nostra Aetate', showed the way: 'yes' to the rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity; 'no' to any form of anti-Semitism and condemnation of any resulting injustice, discrimination and persecution."

Wednesday's remarks come at a time of growing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in Europe and elsewhere and heightened violence in Israel. In recent weeks at least 11 Israelis have been killed in stabbings and other attacks by Palestinians, and at least 59 Palestinians, including those said to have been assailants, have been killed by Israelis.