Pope Benedict’s decision to send a Vatican delegation to a United Nations conference on racism has opened a new rift in relations with Jewish groups, which say it is being used as a platform to attack Israel.

The Jewish groups criticised the Vatican just before diplomats walked out of the conference when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused Israel of establishing a “cruel and repressive racist regime” over Palestinians.

“By participating, the Vatican has given its endorsement to what is being prepared there (against Israel),” Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, told the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

The United States and some of its allies, including Italy — a country which often sees eye-to-eye with the Vatican at international conferences — are boycotting the meeting.

Lately the Pope, called the conference an important initiative and said he hoped it could help “put an end to every form of racism, discrimination and intolerance”.

Chief Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi defended the Vatican’s presence and said a disputed conference text was now “acceptable” because objectionable parts had been deleted. Israel recalled its ambassador to Switzerland in protest before Ahmadinejad spoke on Monday, and, after the Iranian president spoke, the Vatican condemned him. “Naturally, speeches like that of the Iranian president do not go in the right direction, because, even if he did not deny the Holocaust or Israel’s right to exist, his expressions were extremist and unacceptable,” Lombardi said.