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Controversy in Roman Catholic Hierarchy over Plans to Build a Carmelite Convent at Auschwitz

A controversy has broken out in the Roman Catholic hierarchy over plans to establish a Carmelite convent on the site of the Auschwitz death camp where more than two million Jews were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

The establishment of the convent has been defended by Cardinal Franciszek Macharski in the wake of protests by Jewish groups in Western Europe and the United States that the site of Auschwitz belongs to all who were massacred there and that, therefore, no one group should establish itself there.

But according to Macharski, in a sermon published in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, “The former camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is in a certain sense a new ‘sacred place’ that belongs without distinction to all humanity and to every people.” However, some of his peers in the Roman Catholic hierarchy disagree with the project and the nature of the fundraising campaign initiated on its behalf by Pope John Paul II.

ISSUE OF GUARANTEE OF CONVERSION

The Cracow Archdiocese received permission in 1984 to establish the convent in an unused theater just outside the former death camp which is now a State museum. The Polish-born Pope launched the fundraising campaign during his visit to Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg last May.

A letter from the Catholic-European fund-raising group, “Help to the Church in Distress,” promoted the Auschwitz convent as “a spiritual fortress and a guarantee of the conversion of strayed brothers from our countries as well as proof of our desire to erase outrages so often done to the Vicar of Christ.”

Joseph Lichten, representative of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith in Rome, objected to the letter, asking, “Was it necessary to speak of conversion here?” A coalition of Jewish groups in Belgium called the plan to build a convent at a site where so much Jewish blood was shed “intolerable.”

FUND-RAISING PLAN TERMED ‘DISCONCERTING’

Cardinal Albert Decourtray of Lyon, France, seemed to agree. He called the fund-raising plan “disconcerting” and observed that Auschwitz would always remain “a reminder of the Shoah, that is to say, the attempt to exterminate Jews because they are Jews.” A spokesman for Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Malines-Brussels said the bishops of Belgium and The Netherlands were not consulted about the fund-raising and were “not very happy” about the campaign.

A Vatican source familiar with the issue said no Jewish groups were consulted before the convent project was initiated in 1984 and added, “Perhaps this was a mistake.” The source asked not to be identified.

Lichten said the ADL and other groups have questioned why a convent must be built as a “symbol” at Auschwitz since Auschwitz already is a symbol for all those who suffered there. The Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium said in a recent statement that Auschwitz should be an eternal memorial to the Holocaust and not fought over by rival religions like the holy places in Jerusalem.

Cardinal Macharski noted that Carmelite nuns founded a convent at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany 40 years ago and no one objected. He said the Catholic victims at Auschwitz included a priest, Maximilian Kolbe, who gave his life for a fellow prisoner and who was canonized in 1982, and Sister Edith Stein, a German Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a Carmelite nun.

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