A Jewish rights organization accused Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of making anti-Semitic comments during a Christmas Eve speech.
The Los Angeles, California-based Simon Wiesenthal Center demanded an apology from Chavez in a statement issued Wednesday, saying such remarks have long been used to persecute Jews.
"Some minorities, descendants of the same ones who crucified Christ ... took all the world's wealth for themselves," Chavez said in the Dec. 24 speech.
"In your words, the two central arguments of anti-Semitism emerge ... the accusation that Jews killed Jesus (and) associating them with wealth," the Center said in a letter sent to Chavez. "Our center strongly condemns your anti-Semitic declarations."
Chavez did not did not mention the Jewish people explicitly in the speech, which was broadcast on national television. A spokeswoman for the president's office said it had no immediate response to the complaint.
During the speech, Chavez also praised Jesus Christ as a revolutionary hero, saying he was the world's first true socialist.
The letter was signed by Shimon Samuels, the Center's international relations director, and Sergio Widder, a Latin American representative based in Argentina.
They said the Center would urge the governments of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay to "freeze the process" of incorporating Venezuela into the Mercosur trade bloc unless Chavez makes a public apology.
Widder said Thursday that the group had yet to receive a response. He said even if Chavez had not intended to refer to Jews, the possibility for that interpretation was cause for concern.
"The words of a head of state should be cautious," Widder said.
The Jewish rights organization has expressed concerns about other comments by Chavez in the past. Chavez, a fiery speaker who says he is leading Venezuela toward socialism, has said he wants to have good relations will all religious groups.
Venezuela's president is known for speaking candidly. On one occasion he used an epithet in referring to US President George W. Bush, and he once suggested US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was illiterate, offering to send her materials to learn how to read and write.
Chavez's barbs are usually aimed at opposition leaders or US officials, but he has also criticized Latin American leaders such as Mexican President Vicente Fox and former Ecuadorean President Lucio Gutierrez.