The protests of Jewish leaders against Pope John Paul II's scheduled meeting today with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim were fueled by 1,800 years of church-sanctioned anti-Semitism that only in the last two decades has been reversed officially.

The prospect of a Vatican reception for Waldheim -- accused of involvement in sending Greek and Yugoslav Jews and partisans to Nazi death camps when he was an officer in the German army during World War II -- has rekindled dark fears in the Jewish community.

For centuries, the Holy Week liturgy of the Catholic Church contained a prayer of condemnation for "the perfidious Jew," an allusion to the denial by the Jewish people that Jesus is the Messiah.

Another section of the Good Friday liturgy, known as The Reproaches, had God condemning the Jews "for what you have done to my Son."

Until recently, church teachings held Jews responsible for Christ's crucifixion, and Jews were dubbed "Christ killers."

From the Middle Ages onward in many Catholic countries of Europe, the recitation of Holy Week prayers combined with the religious fervor of the season to trigger attacks on individual Jews and as well as provoking pogroms within Jewish ghettos.

The church's traditional theological position on Jews made possible the bloody forced conversions and the Inquisition of the 14th and 15th centuries. It also was used to justified persecutions during the Crusades and, some Jewish leaders believe, was the reason the church failed to protest Nazi atrocities more effectively.

The Second Vatican Council, more than two decades ago, changed the church position. In that theological watershed on the church's relations with the Jews, bishops from around the world rejected the anti-Semitic church teachings that French historian Jules Isaacs called the "teaching of contempt."

Urged on by Pope John XXIII, the council adopted the theological position that Christ died for the salvation of all humankind and that while some of Christ's executioners were Jews, the Jewish people throughout history could not be held responsible for Jesus' death.

The "perfidious Jew" prayer was stricken from the liturgy. It was replaced with a prayer for the Jews, calling them the "the first to hear the word of God."

After Vatican II, the Catholic Church recognized Jews as adherents of a faith worthy of respect and study, not simply as targets for conversion. An official Commission for Catholic-Jewish Relations was established in the Vatican's Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

Catholic-Jewish dialogue groups flourished, particularly in the United States.

In light of these strides toward understanding, Jewish leaders -- and many Catholics as well -- said they are deeply shocked by the decision to receive Waldheim.

"A terrible blow to the future of Jewish-Vatican relations," Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, head of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, said. "This is how it is perceived by the Jewish community, whatever the Vatican's intentions may have been."

"His receiving Waldheim . . . seems to be turning the clock backwards," said Eva Fleischner.

"Anyone who takes Judaism seriously has to be shocked," said Fleischner, a Catholic theologian who teaches a course on the Holocaust at Montclair State College in New Jersey, She immigrated here just before World War II, after Germany annexed her native Austria.

Fleischner said she is distressed that there is so little public support for the Jewish protests.

An official at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters here yesterday said he had received "a lot" of reaction to the pope-Waldheim meeting but declined to comment on it.

"What {the Jewish leaders} find unbelievable is the insensitivity" of the Vatican in agreeing to the Waldheim meeting, said Jacqueline Wexler, president of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The move "opens the wounds" of anti-Semitism, said Wexler, whose organization works to foster better intergroup relations.

Waldheim's visit to the Vatican, his first official foreign visit since his election more than a year ago, was defended by a church spokesman as consistent with the pontiff's longstanding practice of receiving people from "different political and religious backgrounds."

U.S. Catholic bishops have backed Jewish demands for a "substantive" meeting to discuss this and other issues with the pope before he tours here in September.

"The pope should consider himself lucky that the Jews are willing to talk with him after what the church has done," said Fleischner.