JERUSALEM — Israel said Saturday it was shocked and distressed by a senior Vatican cardinal's likening of Gaza under Israel's military offensive to a concentration camp.
A spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry said the cardinal, whose remarks appeared in an interview Wednesday, adopted the kind of language that Hamas and other Islamic militant groups have used to demonize Israel and equate it with Nazi Germany.
"It was shocking to hear the same kind of terminology from such a high-ranking member of the church," Israeli spokesman Yigal Palmor said Saturday.
Cardinal Renato Martino, a former Vatican envoy to the United Nations and now Pope Benedict XVI's top official on issues of peace and justice, said in the interview that Gaza now resembles a "big concentration camp."
Commenting on Israel's two-week military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Martino told the online newspaper Il Sussidiario.net that both sides were concerned only with their own interests.
"But the consequences of this selfishness is hatred, poverty, injustice. It is always the defenseless populations that pay," he was quoted as saying. "Look at the conditions in Gaza: It looks more and more like a big concentration camp."
Vatican spokesmen have declined to comment on the remarks, saying instead that it was more important to note an appeal by the pope on Thursday for a cease-fire.
Martino, an influential prelate who heads the Vatican's Council for Justice and Peace, seemed to want to balance his remarks in another interview published Thursday in Rome daily La Repubblica in which he condemned the Hamas rocket attacks that prompted the Israeli offensive.
But he did not back away from his earlier comparison and said, "Look at the conditions the people are living in."
A man who answered the phone at the cardinal's residence on Friday and identified himself as his private secretary said the prelate would not comment further on the Gaza remark.
"Using this excessive language is not doing justice and is not bringing peace any nearer and he should know better," Palmor said. "This kind of speech is deeply distressing."
Palmor said, however, that the cardinal's remarks would not harm relations with the Vatican or disrupt plans for a visit sometime this year by Benedict.
"These declarations by Cardinal Martino have nothing to do with our overall relations with the Holy See. The pope is still very welcome in Israel," Palmor said.
The Vatican and Israel have had a delicate relationship since establishing diplomatic ties in 1993.
Most recently, they have clashed over the legacy of Pope Pius XII, who some historians say did not do everything in his power to prevent Jews from being deported to concentration camps during World War II.
That dispute centers on a caption of a photo of Pius at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem that says Pius did not protest the Nazi genocide of Jews and maintained a largely "neutral position."
The Vatican says Pius made every effort to help Jews and other victims through quiet diplomacy and wants Yad Vashem to change the caption.
There are also unresolved differences over the status of expropriated church property in Israel and tax exemptions for the church. The Vatican has also protested Israeli restrictions on the movement of Arab Christian clergy to and around the West Bank.
Associated Press Writer Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.