The Vatican is reinstating a British priest who denies millions died at the hands of the Nazis
Tension between the Vatican and Jewish groups looked set to explode yesterday after Pope Benedict XVI rehabilitated a British bishop who has claimed no Jews died in gas chambers during the second world war.
Benedict yesterday welcomed back into the Roman Catholic Church Richard Williamson and three other men who were excommunicated in 1988 after being ordained without Vatican permission. The three had been appointed by breakaway French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. The Vatican decree issued yesterday spoke of overcoming the "scandal of divisiveness" and seeking reconciliation with Lefebvre's conservative order, the Society of Saint Pius X, which opposes the modernisation of Catholic doctrine.
But Jewish groups have warned the Pope that the decision could damage Catholic-Jewish relations after Williamson claimed in an interview, broadcast last week, that historical evidence "is hugely against six million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler ... I believe there were no gas chambers".
Shimon Samuels, of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Paris, said he understood the German-born pope's desire for Christian unity but said Benedict could have excluded Williamson, whose return to the church will "cost" the Vatican politically.
In an interview taped last November and aired last Wednesday on Swedish television, Williamson said he agreed with the "most serious" revisionist historians of the second world war who had concluded that "between 200,000-300,000 perished in Nazi concentration camps, but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber". Williamson added he realised he could go to jail for Holocaust denial in Germany.
British Jewish groups condemned the decision and said they feared it could damage social cohesion. "The Council of Christians and Jews have said that in recent years there has been a considerable increase in antisemitism from some of the eastern European churches," said Mark Gardner, spokesman for the Community Security Trust which monitors attacks on Jewish people in the UK. Gardner said he hoped the Vatican would make it clear it abhors Williamson's comments about the gas chambers.
"Jews will be extremely alarmed by the lifting of this excommunication on somebody who holds such extreme anti-Jewish views," Gardner said. "I hope the Vatican will speak out on this particular aspect of Williamson's ideology."
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, warned last week the Vatican's actions would play into the hands of those seeking to stir up trouble. "For the Jewish people ... this development ... encourages hate-mongers everywhere," Steinberg said. Rome's chief rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said that revoking Williamson's excommunication would open "a deep wound".
Senior Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi fought back yesterday, telling the Observer: "Williamson's statements are not agreed with and are open to criticism, and they have nothing to do with the lifting of the excommunication. One is not connected to the other. The Society of Saint Pius X has itself distanced itself from these statements."
Relations between the Vatican and Jewish groups are already strained by the row over Pope Pius XII, who was pontiff during the second world war, and is being considered by the Vatican for beatification. He is accused by some historians and Jewish leaders of failing to speak out against the Holocaust.
Israeli officials recently protested when a senior cardinal said Israel's offensive in Gaza had turned it into a "big concentration camp".
It is not the first controversy for Benedict. His decision to allow freer use of the old Latin mass, including a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews, caused widespread anger. His reintroduction of the Latin mass earned him criticism from Jewish groups but brought him closer to the Swiss-based Society of Saint Pius X, which opposed many of the changes introduced in the 1960s by the Second Vatican Council, including holding mass in local languages.
The society's leader, Lefebvre, was still at odds with Rome in 1988 when he ordained four new bishops, including Williamson, without permission from the Vatican, earning excommunication both for himself and all four bishops. Lefebvre died in 1991.
Benedict has pushed to normalise relations with the society, meeting the current head, bishop Bernard Fellay, shortly after becoming pope in 2005. In its statement yesterday, the Vatican said Benedict was bringing the bishops back into the fold "with the hope that full conciliation and shared communion is achieved as soon as possible".