x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Clergyman says sorry for hurt, but not words

The Vatican insists on a full apology after a bishop posts a statement of regret online over his claims the Holocaust toll was exaggerated.

Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson is escorted by police on his arrival at Heathrow Airport.
Roman Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson is escorted by police on his arrival at Heathrow Airport.

LONDON // A renegade Roman Catholic clergyman who believes that the Holocaust was not nearly as bad as history records has had a half-hearted apology for his remarks rejected by the Vatican. As the fallout from comments by Richard Williamson continued to strain further relations between the Vatican and Israel - even threatening Pope Benedict's upcoming visit to the Holy Land at one stage - the British-born cleric did little to ease the situation with an apology he posted on a traditionalist Catholic website on Friday.

Mr Williamson, who was excommunicated 20 years ago for rejecting tenets of the Second Vatican Council, which was aimed at modernising the church, and who was finally rehabilitated by the pope in January, said that, if he had known the upset his remarks would cause, he would not have made them. This, though, did not satisfy the Vatican, which has been embarrassed enough by the affair already. When the pope lifted the excommunication order, he was unaware that, two months earlier, Mr Williamson had made his controversial remarks about the Holocaust in a Swedish TV interview.

In the interview, Mr Williamson, 68, who was forced to return to the United Kingdom last week after being deported from Argentina, disputed the fact that six million Jews had been killed by the Nazis and said that the number was, at most, 300,000. He also said none had died in gas chambers. After uproar from Jews worldwide, the pope said Mr Williamson must recant his views before he could once again receive communion in the Catholic Church.

In his statement on Friday, Mr Williamson said: "I can truthfully say that I regret having made such remarks and that if I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the church but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them. "To all souls that took honest scandal from what I said before God, I apologise."

This, though, was not nearly enough for the pope. The Rev Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said Mr Williamson "does not seem to respect the conditions" the church set after he had made his comments, and that he needed to "unequivocally and publicly" withdraw those remarks. By yesterday, however, the bishop seemed in no mood to apologise. The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that he had contacted David Irving, a controversial historian who has questioned the accepted history of the Holocaust, asking how to present his views without causing a backlash.

Mr Irving told the newspaper: "He is obviously a very intelligent man who did not realise the danger of talking to the press. He is not a Holocaust denier. Like me, he does not buy the whole package." Jews worldwide remained furious over the remarks. Renzo Gattegna, the president of Italy's Jewish Communities group, described Mr Williamson's apology as "absolutely ambiguous". Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, described the statement as "not the kind of an apology that would end this matter".

But the Church has not been the only one on the defensive because of the affair. Last week, Lior Shlein, a popular Israeli comedian, went on Israeli TV in response to comments and ridiculed Jesus and said that Mary was not a virgin. The Vatican protested to the Israeli government, as did Muslims and Christians in the Middle East. A group of Christian community workers in the Palestinian territories demanded that the pope cancel his visit to Israel, scheduled for the second week in May.

The Vatican was clearly furious about the skit, branding it a "vulgar and offensive act of intolerance towards the religious sentiments of the believers in Christ". In the end, Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister, had to step in to save the day, telling the pope of his "regret, sorrow and disapproval". Aside from his internet statement, Mr Williamson has kept a low profile since his return to Britain five days ago, when he was met at Heathrow by police and surrounded by three bodyguards.

He is, however, said to be considering making an appearance at a church in north London that broke away from the mainstream Roman Catholic Church in the 1980s, partly because of the Vatican's decision to drop the Latin mass. Aside from his views on the Holocaust, Mr Williamson, who as an "illicit" bishop in the Church cannot perform duties of either a priest or bishop, has some other opinions that many consider odd.

He has claimed, for example, that the United States itself planned the September 11 attacks, that Freemasons are conspiring to undermine the Church, and that "a woman can do a good imitation of handling ideas, but then she will not be thinking properly as a woman". In March last year, he described as "authentic" The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document that purports to reveal Jewish plots to achieve world domination. The document is generally considered to be a forgery, penned by anti-Semites in Tsarist Russia.

Mr Williamson, however, denies being anti-Semitic. "My definition of anti-Semitism is to be against every single Jew purely because he's a Jew," he says. "That's not at all my case. I once had a Jewish rabbi come and speak to seminarians. Does that sound to you like anti-Semitism?" dsapsted@thenational.ae