ROME (Jun. 17)
President Kurt Waldheim of Austria will meet with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican on June 25, the Vatican announced Wednesday. It will be the first trip abroad for Waldheim since he was elected 11 months ago. He has been officially barred from entering the United State and is shunned by most Western governments because of evidence of his complicity in Nazi atrocities during World War II.
Vatican Radio explained that the Pontiff never refuses an audience with a foreign head of state. Waldheim, a practicing Catholic, will be accompanied by Foreign Minister Alois Mock. An Austrian spokesman said Wednesday that the controversial President has received official invitations from Jordan, Libya and Uganda.
The announcement that the Pope will grant him an audience drew a sharp protest from the World Jewish Congress, which was instrumental in exposing Waldheim’s Nazi past. “This is a tragedy for the Vatican, and a sad day for Catholic-Jewish relations,” a WJC statement said.
It noted that “This is the Pope who met with (PLO chief Yasir) Arafat, this is the Pope who refuses to recognize Israel. This is not the first unsavory character whom the Pope has received in audience.”
Other Jewish organizations also reacted strongly to the announcement. Morris Abram, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in New York Wednesday that “The American government passed proper judgement on the wartime conduct of Kurt Waldheim and placed him on the watch list of Nazis barred from entering the country… Now the Pope plans to receive Kurt Waldheim. We are deeply disturbed by this invitation which we find incomprehensible.”
Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, referred to “The massive documentation of Waldheim’s participation in Nazi crimes.” He said “We urge the Pope to reconsider this unfortunate invitation which would have the effect of further straining relations with the Jewish community and impairing his own moral credentials.”
Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International, said “We regret deeply that Pope John Paul II sees fit to meet with Kurt Waldheim. Such a meeting offers Waldheim a cloak of respectability that he does not deserve . . . . The United States has placed him on its watch list, which speaks volumes about his character. We believe such a visit sends a message to the world that this unrepentant sinner is welcome again to assume the mantle of statesmanship.”
And Dr. Lionel Kopelwitz, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote to the Papal Ambassador in London: “We were shocked to hear of the Pope’s invitation to Waldheim, which will give great offense to Jewish communities worldwide, as well as to all decent people, especially those who suffered and fought Nazism, who cherish truth, decency and eternal values which Jews and Christians share.”