TEL AVIV // The Vatican's recent rehabilitation of an excommunicated bishop who denies the Holocaust occurred has infuriated many Jewish groups and appears to be further clouding prospects of a visit to Israel by Pope Benedict XVI in May.
In a controversial decision last week, Pope Benedict revoked the excommunication of four bishops, including Richard Williamson, a British-born cleric who has denied that six million Jews were exterminated during the Second World War. The four men were removed from the church by Pope Benedict's predecessor in 1988 after they were consecrated without papal permission by Marcel Lefebvre, an ultraconservative French archbishop now dead.
For the Vatican, the rehabilitation of the four bishops was a way to reconcile with the ultra-orthodox Society of St Pius X, which was founded by Lefebvre in 1969 after he rebelled against the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The bishops' legal status within the church has yet to be determined. The rehabilitation of the men set off controversy because it coincided with comments broadcast this month in a Swedish state TV interview with Mr Williamson, in which he said historical evidence "is hugely against six million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler". He added that the "most serious" revisionists have concluded that "between 200,000 to 300,000 perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber".
The Vatican has said Mr Williamson's statements and the bishops' rehabilitation are "absolutely unrelated" and that the pope does not share Mr Williamson's views. On Monday, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said in a front-page article that Mr Williamson's comments were "unacceptable" and reiterated that Pope Benedict opposed all forms of anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the rehabilitation of the bishops, meant as a way to heal the rift within the Catholic Church, threatens to strain the Vatican's relations with Jewish groups. The timing of the pope's decision appears to have exacerbated the controversy because the lifting of the excommunication occurred just days before Jews marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday.
Jewish organisations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Israel's quasi-governmental Jewish Agency and the Yad Vashem authority, which manages the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, condemned the Vatican for embracing a Holocaust denier. The Jerusalem Post, a right-wing newspaper in Israel, this week referred to the pope's decision as "injudicious and perverse". In an editorial, the newspaper called "for an immediate three-month moratorium on substantive contacts between the organised Jewish community and the Vatican. During this period, Israel's ambassador to the Holy See should be recalled to Jerusalem for consultations".
However, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry, Aviv Shir-On, yesterday said that although it is "regrettable" that Mr Williamson did not retract the statements he made on the Holocaust, Israel "does not see any connection between the issues, and [the restoration of the men to the Church] won't jeopardise the pope's visit in Israel." Israel established diplomatic ties with the Vatican in the early 1990s, but unresolved issues, including the status of expropriated church property and permits for Arab Christian clergy travelling to and around the West Bank, may have prevented a papal visit in recent years. The last such visit was in March 2000, when John Paul II came for a five-day pilgrimage to Christian sites in Jerusalem, Nazareth and the West Bank town of Bethlehem.
Some Vatican officials have played down the effect of the lifted excommunications on a possible trip to Israel by the pope, and indicated that events such as Israel's 22-day onslaught in the Gaza Strip may play a bigger role in delaying it. Cardinal Renato Martino, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, was quoted by an online Italian newspaper this month as saying that the Palestinian enclave increasingly resembles "a big concentration camp".
Furthermore, Cardinal Walter Kasper, in charge of the Vatican's relations with Jews, told another Italian daily this week that the papal trip could be "complicated" by the effects of the Gaza attacks. "No decision has been taken yet, and the programme has not been set. It depends on how the situation develops on the ground," he said, adding that "the situation must be calm" for the visit. Yesterday, in an attempt to highlight Pope Benedict's stance on the Holocaust, Vatican Radio aired a lengthy programme to mark Holocaust remembrance day. It also recalled his 2006 visit to Auschwitz, his 2005 visit to the main synagogue in Cologne, Germany, and other remarks over the years in which he has denounced the "insane, racist ideology" that produced the Holocaust, according to the Associated Press.
In September, the German-born Pope Benedict paid tribute to Pius XII, who was pontiff from 1939 to 1958, at a mass marking the 50th anniversary of his death and stated he would like to have him beatified, a step that would place him on the path to sainthood. The announcement sparked uproar in Israel and among many Jewish groups, which criticised Pius for failing to speak out during the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the Second World War.