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JERUSALEM - Israel on Sunday slammed critical remarks made by Middle East Catholic bishops after a

'An anti-Israel majority'

Palestinians welcome Catholic support for end of Israeli occupation of their territories.

meeting chaired by Pope Benedict XVI as "political attacks" on the Jewish state.

"We express our disappointment that this important synod has become a forum for political attacks on Israel in the best history of Arab propaganda," Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said in a statement.

"The synod was hijacked by an anti-Israel majority," he added.

Bishops and patriarchs from across the Middle East on Saturday called on the international community to end the occupation of Arab lands in an official statement following a two-week synod held at the Vatican.

"Recourse to theological and biblical positions which use the Word of God to wrongly justify injustices is not acceptable," the synod said.

Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, head of the commission which drew up the statement, went one step further, saying: "The theme of the Promised Land cannot be used as a basis to justify the return of the Jews to Israel and the expatriation of the Palestinians."

"For Christians, one can no longer talk of the land promised to the Jewish people," the Lebanese-born head of the Greek Melkite Church in the United States said, because the "promise" was "abolished by the presence of Christ."

Ayalon said he was "especially appalled" at those remarks.

"We call on the Vatican to (distance) themselves from Archbishop Bustros's comments, which are a libel against the Jewish people and the state of Israel and should not be construed as the Vatican's official position."

Most religious Jews believe the land of Israel was given to them by God, and Jewish settlers often cite biblical justifications for holding onto the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories seized in the 1967 Six-Day War.

But foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said scripture had never been used by any Israeli government to justify the occupation or settlement of territory.

He also pointed out that Israel's Christian population had grown since the establishment of the Jewish state, while in much of the rest of the Middle East Christians have fled in large numbers because of war, instability and economic hardship.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, meanwhile, welcomed the synod's call for a two-state solution and blamed Israel for the emigration of Christians from the occupied territories.

"The international community must uphold its moral and legal responsibility to put a speedy end to the illegal Israeli occupation," he said.

Erakat said Christians were an "integral part of the Palestinian people" and blamed Israel for their emigration from the Holy Land, which he added "gravely damages... the prospects of our future state."

"We join the synod in their call to the international community to uphold the universal values of freedom, dignity and justice," he said in a statement.

His remarks came after the bishops and patriarchs of the region's Catholic churches called on the international community to take "the necessary legal steps to put an end to the occupation of the different Arab territories."

"The Palestinian people will thus have an independent and sovereign homeland where they can live with dignity and security" alongside a secure Israel, said a final statement issued after a two-week synod chaired by Pope Benedict XVI.

The Palestinians welcomed the synod's reference to UN resolutions calling for Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967.

"This is a clear message to the government of Israel that it may not claim that Jerusalem is an exclusively Israeli city," Erakat said, referring to Arab east Jerusalem, which Israel seized in 1967 and annexed in a move not recognised by the international community.

Israel views all of Jerusalem as its "eternal, undivided" capital, and the city's fate has been one of the most intractable disputes in the peace process.

The United States convinced the two sides to renew peace negotiations in early September but the talks ground to a halt later that month when a 10-month partial Israeli moratorium on settlements expired.

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