ROME -- World Jewish Congress officials met with Pope Benedict XVI and separately with senior  Italian officials on Friday, praising Italy for its support of Israel.

WJC President Ronald Lauder told Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini in their meeting that the Jewish world "deeply appreciates" its "important and well-established friendship with the Italian government" and also appreciates "Italian attention to the safety of the people of Israel."  Italy, Lauder later said, "has a key role in advancing the peace process in the Middle East."

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During the meeting, Frattini, who on a visit to Israel last month referred to Italy as Israel's "best friend" in Europe, awarded Lauder the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity.

The leadership of the WJC met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican on Friday, asking the pontiff to denounce the delegtimization of Israel.

"We discussed critical issues affecting world Jewry," said Lauder “and we expressed to the Pope how much we value the close relationship we have enjoyed with the Vatican over many years in our quest for a secure Israel and a safer future for Jews everywhere.”

Benedict stated that the Church recognizes the deep and historical connection of the Jewish people to their ancient homeland, the Holy Land, going back to the time of Abraham, and expressed his commitment to help foster understanding of the bond between the nation of Israel and the land of Israel among people throughout the world.

In a related development, the Vatican released a statement Friday describing a "good and open atmosphere" in Thursday's latest round of talks aimed at finalizing bilateral economic relations between Israel and the Holy See. The talks, held in Jerusalem, started with mention of the telegram the pope sent to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressing his "prayers and solidarity" with victims of the recent forest fire and his appreciation of the "selfless dedication" of those involved in the rescue operation.

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