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The head of the Palestinian Sharia court, Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, fiercely denounced Israeli policy in the presence of Pope Benedict on Monday and appealed to the pope to help end what he called the "crimes of the Jewish state."

Speaking at an interfaith conference held at the Notre Dame Church in East Jerusalem, al-Tamimi accused Israel of slaughtering women, children and senior citizens.

The speech was delivered in Arabic, without simultaneous translation, but after the pope was informed of the political nature of al-Tamimi's speech, he left the conference.

The Sheikh opened his impromptu speech with a story about Saladin, who upheld the rights of Christians after he conquered Jerusalem, stressing that Islam and Christianity must unite against "the Israeli occupation and bring about an independent Palestinian state."

"Israel destroyed our home, exiled our people, built settlements, ruined the Muslim holy sites, and slaughtered women, children and senior citizens in Gaza," he continued. At this point, the conference's organizers tried to persuade al-Tamimi to end his spontaneous speech, but to no avail.

Al-Tamimi won a round of applause from some of the assembled clerics.

Addressing the pope at the end of his six-minute address, he said: "Your Holiness, I call on you in the name of the one God, to condemn these crimes and press the Israeli government to halt its aggression against the Palestinian people."

Al-Tamimi shook the pope's hand as he left the podium and the meeting broke up as scheduled immediately afterwards.

The director general of Israel's Chief Rabbinate, Oded Wiener, said that "Sheikh Tamimi embarrassed the pope."

He said Tamimi, a familiar and fiery figure in Palestinian public life, had pressured the Catholic organisers to be allowed to speak and that the Jewish members would no longer take part in a long-standing, three-way interfaith dialogue until the sheikh was barred from attending.

"The Chief Rabbinate will not continue it as long as Tamimi is part of the Palestinian delegation," Wiener said.

Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, charged with the pope's visit to Israel, said that Tamimi's statements "hurt, first and foremost, Pope Benedict XVI who came to the Holy Land to promote peace and unity between the peoples of the region and all persons of faith."

"Israel condemns these words of hatred uttered by the sheikh, who instead of fostering peace and coexistence chose to plant seeds of division and confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between Jews, Muslims and Christians," Misezhnikov said.

"It is a shame that the extremists were those who represented the Palestinians and the Muslims in this important event in the presence of the Holy See."

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi criticized al-Tamimi's speech. "The speech by Sheikh Taysir Tamimi was not scheduled by the organisers of the meeting. In a meeting dedicated to dialogue, this intervention was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be. We hope that such an incident will not damage the mission of the pope aiming at promoting peace and also interreligious dialogue," he said.

The incident further marred the start of the German-born pope's five-day tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories, after criticism by some Jews that a speech at a Holocaust memorial did not go far enough to mend Catholic-Jewish rifts.

Pope Benedict, in his own speech to the gathering of priests, rabbis and sheikhs, praised their efforts to seek common values and mutual respect to overcome differences in religious practices that "may at times appear as barriers."