WASHINGTON, Sept. 7 (RNS)--Just days after the Vatican released a declaration saying the salvation of non-Catholics is "gravely deficient," a group ofJewish scholars released a landmark statement Thursday callingon Jews to affirm their shared roots with Christians while acknowledginga "humanly irreconcilable difference" between the two religions.

More than 160 Jewish leaders and theologians signed the eight-pointstatement, which was drafted by the Baltimore-based Institute for Jewishand Christian Studies. Supporters heralded it as the first majorresponse to overtures by Roman Catholic and Protestant churches toimprove relations with Jewish groups.

The statement will be published in The New York Times and Baltimore Sun over the weekend.

While the timing of the Jewish and Vatican statements was largelycoincidental, the language and tone of the two documents could not havebeen more different.

Where the Vatican statement attempted to draw differences betweenchurch teaching and other religions, the Jewish statement moved toaffirm the shared roots and traditions between Judaism and Christianity.

"We respect Christianity as a faith that originated within Judaismand that still has significant contacts with it," read the statement,"Dabru Emet," which is Hebrew for "Speak the Truth."

"We do not see it as an extension of Judaism. Only if we cherish our own traditions can we pursue this relationship with integrity."

The statement went on to say that Jews and Christians worship thesame God, seek authority and moral guidance from the same Scripture (theBible), and both respect the Jewish claim on Israel. It affirmed thatrelations with Christians do not compromise Jewish faith.

In perhaps the most important section, Jewish leaders saidChristians should not be held responsible for the Nazi Holocaust, eventhough some Christian leaders could have tried to stop it and "withoutthe long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violenceagainst Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it havebeen carried out."

Still, "Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome ofChristianity," it said.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship ofChristians and Jews, signed the statement and said Jews are long overduefor a reassessment of Christianity.

"Christians have come extremely far, especially when you juxtaposethe past 30 years against the past 2,000 years of fratricide andenmity," Eckstein said. "Now it behooves us to take another look, tolook at the commonalities, and not to have this siege mentality based onthe Christians of the past, not the Christians of today."

Nonetheless, Eckstein and other Jewish leaders said they wereperplexed by the Vatican's statement on salvation, a sentiment echoed bya number of non-Catholic Christian leaders who said the Vatican statementthreatens to turn back the clock on ecumenical dialogue and muddy thetheological waters.

The two statements represent both the fragility of interfaithrelations and the significant progress made between Christians and Jewsin the past 30 years.

Since the watershed Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the RomanCatholic Church has attempted to improve relations with Jews, and PopeJohn Paul II has made improved ecumenical relations a hallmark of hispapacy.

But several sections of the Vatican statement--including that theRoman Catholic Church is the only "instrument for the salvation of allhumanity"--raised ecumenical and interfaith eyebrows.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American HebrewCongregations--the umbrella group of Reform Jewish synagogues--said hewas "troubled" by the Vatican's statement, especially in light of theJewish declaration.

"The heart of the [Jewish] statement was the suggestion that bothsides can recognize a measure of religious legitimacy in the other,"Yoffie said. "[The Vatican statement] seems inconsistent with otherstatements made by the pope, and does raise some questions about thefundamental purpose of the [Jewish] statement."

A leading Catholic theologian, however, carefully pointed out thatthe Vatican statement was mostly talking about non-Christian religions--but not Judaism--and that Catholic teaching holds a special distinction for the Jewish people.

"What God is doing with the Jewish people and what God is doingwith us are intimately related," said Eugene Fisher, who leadsCatholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of CatholicBishops. "They are not lines that never meet. There is one root, andthat is biblical Israel, and there are two branches that are separatebut intertwined--Christianity and rabbinic Judaism."