ROME (Jun. 25)
Austrian President Kurt Waldheim received a blessing and was praised as a man of peace by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican Thursday. Meanwhile on the fringes of St. Peters Square, sealed off for security, several hundred demonstrators protested bitterly against the presence in the Vatican of the man accused of complicity in Nazi atrocities and the papal honors bestowed upon him.
Waldheim’s visit, his first trip abroad since his election nearly a year ago, aroused anger and dismay among Jews all over the world.
The Pope’s decision to receive him was sharply criticized by ranking members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States and Europe and by Protestant church leaders. The Italian government dissociated itself from the Papal invitation and pointedly ignored Waldheim’s presence on Italian soil.
He was greeted at the Vatican with all of the pomp and ceremony due a visiting head of state. Waldheim, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, appeared flushed with pleasure and emotion as he was met at the Vatican gates and reviewed a rank of colorfully uniformed Swiss Guards, their rifles held at the present-arms position. A brass band played the Austrian and Vatican anthems.
POPE PRAISES WALDHEIM’S WORK
He was escorted to the Pope’s private library for a 30-minute audience. Afterwards, in a formal address, the Pope praised Waldheim for his work as a two-term Secretary General of the United Nations and as President of Austria.
“Your activity up until now in your international life as a diplomat and as the Foreign Minister of your country, as well as your activity at the United Nations, has always been dedicated to securing peace among all nations. As the highest representative of the Austrian people, your professional life experience in this field can be of service to your highly regarded country,” the Pope said.
He also paid tribute to Austria, which he said “played a free, democratic and responsible role in world affairs” since World War 11.
Replying, Waldheim stressed the Pope’s role as “a recognized moral authority and conscience of the world.” He added, “I can assure Your Holiness that I appreciate in all its significance the high value of this encounter.”
There was no reference, nor could any be expected, to Waldheim’s wartime activities. As an intelligence officer in the German army occupying the Balkans, he was involved, according to a growing body of documentary evidence, in atrocities against Jews, other civilians and resistance fighters in Greece and Yugoslavia.
That wartime record, which has kept Waldheim in virtual diplomatic isolation until his reception by the Pope, was the target of the protestors — mainly Jews but also former members of the Italian resistance fighters and surviving deportees. They carried a six-foot model scaffold, complete with hangman’s noose, to the edge of St. Peters Square to remind the world of the horrors of Nazi death camps. Four American Jews, led by Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, appeared in the striped garb of concentration camp inmates, yellow Stars of David sewn on the tunics, prayer shawls draped over their shoulders.
Among the demonstrators were Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, who helped track down war criminal Klaus Barbie in Bolivia. Barbie is currently on trial in Lyon, France for crimes against humanity. The demonstrators, held back by cordons of police, shouted, “When will Barbie meet the Pope?”
Following the Papal audience, the Waldheims, accompanied by Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock, were escorted by Vatican Secretary of State Msgr. Agostino Casaroli to a reception with foreign diplomats accredited to the Holy See.
The U.S., Britain and several other Western countries were represented by low-ranking diplomats.