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Attacks on Pope Benedict and the Catholic Church over a sexual abuse scandal are comparable to the most shameful anti-Semitism, the pontiff's personal preacher told a Vatican Good Friday service.

Father Raniero Cantalamessa, a Franciscan whose title is "Preacher of the Pontifical Household," drew the parallel during a "Passion of the Lord" service in St Peter's Basilica on the day Christians commemorate Jesus' death by crucifixion.

His comments drew sharp criticism from some Jews.

Cantalamessa, noting that this year the Jewish Passover and Christian Easter fell during the same week, said Jews throughout history had been the victims of "collective violence" and drew a comparison with attacks on the Church over the scandal.

As the pope listened, Cantalamessa read the congregation a part of a letter he received from a Jewish friend, who said he was "following with disgust the violent and concentric attacks against the Church, the pope..."

"The use of stereotypes, the shifting of personal responsibility and guilt to a collective guilt remind me of the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," he quoted from the letter.

"Shame on Father Cantalamessa," said Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.

"The Vatican is entitled to defend itself but the comparison with anti-Semitic persecution is offensive and unsustainable. We are sorely disappointed," he told Reuters.

The chief rabbi of Rome, Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, reportedly laughed in when asked about Father Cantalamessa's remarks, The New York Times reported.

"With a minimum of irony, I will say that today is Good Friday, when they pray that the Lord illuminate our hearts so we recognize Jesus," Rabbi Di Segni told the New York Times, referring to a prayer in a traditional Catholic liturgy calling for the conversion of the Jews. "We also pray that the Lord illuminate theirs."

This week's celebrations leading up to Easter Sunday have been clouded by accusations that the Church in several countries mishandled and covered up episodes of sexual abuse of children by priests, some dating back decades.

Shaken by the crisis, the Vatican has accused the media of an "ignoble" attempt to smear the pope at all costs. Some news reports have accused him of negligence in handling sexual abuse cases in previous roles as a cardinal in his native Germany and in Rome.

As revelations of sexual abuse and alleged cover-ups have surfaced almost daily in Europe over the past few weeks, the Vatican has said the guilt of individuals who committed crimes, however heinous, cannot be shifted to the pope or the entire Church.