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Pope Benedict XVI walked out of an interfaith conference in Jerusalem yesterday after a Muslim cleric accused Israel of "slaughtering" women and children.

Speaking at an interfaith conference in the Notre Dame Church in East Jerusalem, the head of the Palestinian Sharia court, Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, denounced Israeli policy and appealed to the pope to help end what he called the "crimes of the Jewish state." Specifically, he accused Israel of slaughtering women, children and the elderly.

The speech was delivered in Arabic, without simultaneous translation into English. But after the pope was informed of the political nature of 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. He then declared 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 elderly people in Gaza," he continued.

At this point, conference organizers tried to persuade Tamimi to end his spontaneous speech, but to no avail.

Turning to the pope at the end of his six-minute address, Tamimi 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."

As he left the podium, to applause from some of the assembled clerics, Tamimi shook the pope's hand. The meeting broke up as scheduled shortly afterward.

Later, however, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi criticized Tamimi's speech. "The speech by Sheikh Taysir Tamimi was not scheduled by the organizers of the meeting," he said. "In a meeting dedicated to dialogue, this ... was a direct negation of what a dialogue should be."

He added that he hoped the incident would not damage the pope's mission of promoting peace and interreligious dialogue.

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

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

He said Tamimi had pressured the Catholic organizers to be allowed to speak. He added that the forum's Jewish members would henceforth boycott the longstanding, 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.

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 practice that "may at times appear as barriers."