Pope to meet with umbrella group of US Jewry

Hoenlein praises Benedict XVI; tensions ease as Vatican shuns Holocaust-denying bishop.

hoenlein 248.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
hoenlein 248.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The furor between world Jewry and the Catholic Church appears to be on the mend since the church moved to distance itself from an ultra-conservative bishop who continues to deny that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. On Thursday, Pope Benedict XVI will hold his first meeting with the umbrella group of US Jewry, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "It's in our interest to have good relations with the Vatican," Conference of Presidents executive vice chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said ahead of the visit. "But not at any price." Hoenlein praised Benedict's record, noting that "he said that attacking Jews and Judaism is an attack on the church, [and] he visited Auschwitz and a synagogue in Cologne." However, Hoenlein called for "real sanction" against "anyone publicly espousing Holocaust denial." On Monday, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who presides over the church's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, met with Richard Prasquier, head of the French Jewish umbrella group CRIF, and Maram Stern of the World Jewish Congress. According to a statement by the WJC after the meeting, Prasquier told Kasper that "the denial of the Shoah is not an opinion, but a crime." The church drew widespread condemnation when the pope rehabilitated on January 24 four bishops excommunicated in 1988 because they were ordained without Vatican approval. One of these bishops, British-born Richard Williamson, has publicly denied the Holocaust, saying only a few hundred thousand Jews were killed in the Nazi genocide, not the six million recorded in archives from the period. Most recently, he told a Swedish television station in January that there were no gas chambers in the Nazi death camps. Williamson, whose excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church was lifted last month, lost a court bid to stop a Swedish TV station from posting an interview on the Web in which he questioned the extent of the Holocaust. According to a statement, the court in Nuremberg, Germany, ruled that Williamson could not stop Sveriges Television AB from posting the interview on the Internet or broadcasting it outside of Sweden. Williamson had claimed he had given permission only for the interview to be shown on TV in Sweden. "Bishop Williamson's bid was rejected without hearing the defendant in the case," the court said, adding that he "didn't explicitly oppose" distribution of his interview via the Internet when he agreed to the interview. The Swedish TV station taped the interview in a town close to Regensburg, Germany, in November. Williamson said he'd told the journalist the station needed to handle the material carefully because of the legal situation in Germany. But the Swedish interview was only the latest in a long history of such statements, according to the Winona Daily News of Winona, Minnesota, where Williamson served for 15 years. "There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies," Williamson said in a 1989 speech at Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes church in Sherbrooke, Canada, the Daily News reported Sunday. In the same speech, the paper said Williamson had also claimed that "the Jews created the Holocaust so we would prostrate ourselves on our knees before them and approve of their new State of Israel... Jews made up the Holocaust, Protestants get their orders from the devil, and the Vatican has sold its soul to liberalism." The paper also reported that Williamson wrote letters in 2001 and 2002 blaming "Judeo-Masonry" for the two world wars and claiming that Jews were bent on world domination. The rehabilitation had drawn condemnation from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Israel's Chief Rabbinate, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, and a wide range of Jewish groups. Despite initial Vatican protestations that the rehabilitation was an internal matter relating to a schism over ordination, the Vatican has ordered Williamson to recant his Holocaust denial before being "admitted to the episcopal functions of the church." Williamson promised in a Saturday interview with Der Spiegel to "review the historical evidence once again" regarding the veracity of the Holocaust. However, the La Reja Catholic Seminary in Argentina, which he heads, did not wait for him to sift through the historical evidence and decided to remove him from his post over the weekend. A statement by the Society of St. Pius X, the conservative Catholic group to which Williamson belongs, made clear that "Monsignor Williamson's statements do not in any way reflect the position of our congregation." According to Father Christian Bouchacourt, the society's South American superior, "a Catholic bishop cannot speak with ecclesiastical authority except on matters concerning faith and morality. Our brotherhood does not claim any authority over other questions." A March meeting between Benedict and the Chief Rabbinate, canceled due to the controversy, has reportedly been reinstated following the church's rejection of Williamson's statements. AP and Bloomberg contributed to this report.