VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI told American Jewish leaders Thursday that he plans to visit Israel in May, coupling the long-awaited announcement with his strongest condemnation of Holocaust denial. The 81-year-old pope assured the group that the Catholic Church was "profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism," helping to ease Jewish furor that followed the pope's reinstatement of an ultraconservative bishop who questioned the extent of the Holocaust.
"Such warmth, with an outstretched hand," said New York Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor, after the audience in the frescoed Consistory Hall. "The visit is on, no hesitation, reservations."
There has been only one other official visit by a pope to the Jewish state. Both sides said it will take place in May.
The trip, talked about since the start of the German pope's papacy in 2005, has been up in the air for some time due to problems raised by both sides. The latest jolt came when Benedict last month lifted the excommunications of four ultraconservative bishops -- one of whom denied that Jews were gassed by the Nazis during World War II.
Protests by Jews, the pope's own bishops in Germany and German Chancellor Angela Merkel led the Vatican to demand the bishop recant, easing tensions and leading to Thursday's meeting with more than 60 representatives of American Jewish organizations.
Addressing the group in English as they sat in chairs before him, Benedict called the slaughter of 6 million Jews a crime against God.
The Vatican said Benedict did not know about the views of Bishop Richard Williamson when he agreed to lift the excommunication, but he clearly referred to him Thursday.
"The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity," Benedict told the visiting leaders, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. "This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures."
Jewish leaders applauded his comments, most saying the crisis with the church over Williamson's comments was over.
"We came here with heavy hearts because of recent events, but we came away pleased and honored by the words of His Holiness," Malcolm Hoenlein, vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told reporters.
Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Vatican should excommunicate Williamson again because of his remarks.
"Every moment that he stays in the church gives him credibility," he told reporters after the meeting.
"Today's statement was important but it did not bring closure," he said. "You cannot condemn Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and reinstate someone who to this day continues to be an anti-Semite and deny the Holocaust."
In an interview with Swedish state TV broadcast Jan. 21, Williamson said only about 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed, none of them gassed.
Williamson has apologized for causing distress to the pope, but has not recanted. He said he would correct himself if he is satisfied by the evidence, but insisted in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that examining it "will take time."
Benedict's trip had been planned before the Williamson affair surfaced.
Pope John Paul II made the first official visit in 2000, moving many when he prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.
The only other visit by a pope, in 1964, reflected the strained nature of the relationship in those years. Pope Paul VI spent only part of one day in Israel, never ventured into Jewish west Jerusalem nor uttered the word "Israel" in public.
But while both sides have since forged formal diplomatic ties, the relationship has suffered bumps and strains.
The Vatican is upset with a caption under a photo of World War II Pope Pius XII at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. It alleges that Pius didn't protest as Nazis rounded up Jews in Europe and sent them to their deaths.
In turn, Israel was upset when senior Vatican Cardinal Renato Martino said Gaza during Israel recent military offensive resembled a "big concentration camp."
Rabbi David Rosen said the Israel visit is planned for May and that the pope told him Thursday he hopes it will be "a sign of peace" for the Middle East.
"The pope's language was very clear," Rosen said. "It was a very strong and quite moving affirmation of his commitment to Catholic-Jewish relations and opposition to anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial."
Benedict visited Israel when he was a cardinal in 1994.
AP reporter Ariel David contributed to this report from Rome.