Menu JTA Search

Leaders Say Pope’s Visit to Austria Not a Repeat of Waldheim Audience

Pope John Paul II’s announced trip to Austria should more properly be viewed as a pastoral visit to that country’s Catholics than as a repeat of the controversial papal audience with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim last summer, Catholic and Jewish officials said Wednesday.

In planning the June 23 to 27 visit, the pope is responding to an invitation extended by Austrian bishops at the beginning of 1987, according to a spokesman at the Apostolic Nunciature, the Vatican Embassy in Washington.

The spokesman said that during such a visit it is a “tradition” that the pope meet in some way with the country’s head of state.

“I would assume he’ll meet with Waldheim, although I haven’t any sure news about this,” said the spokesman.

Plans for the pope’s visit were discussed before controversy erupted over Waldheim’s audience at the Vatican and are “not really a surprise,” said Eugene Fisher, secretary of the Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish relations of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“When the pope came (to the United States) it was to visit the Catholic people, but the president met him in Miami,” noted Fisher.

Waldheim, a former secretary general of the United Nations who is being investigated about his activities as an officer in the German army during World War II, met with John Paul II at the Vatican last June. Waldheim has repeatedly denied that he participated in the deportation of Greek Jews to Auschwitz, among other charges.

According to Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) and director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee, it is “important for the Jewish community to know” that the pope received the Austrian bishops’ invitation two weeks before the audience with Waldheim.

MAY NOT BE PRESIDENT

Tanenbaum said that reactions by IJCIC and other Jewish organizations will depend on whether Waldheim is still Austria’s president by the time of the papal visit.

Tanenbaum referred to the international commission, headed by Austrian Hans Kurz, that is investigating Waldheim’s wartime activities. The commission’s report is expected to be released late this month.

“The report will trigger a significant public debate in Austria, the question being, should Waldheim resign?,” said Tanenbaum.

If the Austrian leader does not step down by the time of the papal visit, “then we are concerned about the content and nature of their meeting and hope not to see a repeat of last summer,” he said.

If Waldheim does resign, “then this is a normal, pastoral visit to the 87 percent of Austrians who are Catholic, ” said Tanenbaum.

At an IJCIC meeting Thursday, Tanenbaum will present for approval copies of a letter that is to be forwarded to Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, head of the Vatican Secretariat for Religious Relations With the Jews.

The letter requests a meeting with Wille-brands and Vatican Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli to discuss the pope’s visit.

Reactions to the announced visit by other American Jewish leaders were mixed, with some more cautious than others.

Seymour Reich, president of B’nai B’rith International, said in a statement that the only useful result of a second meeting between the pope and Waldheim would be “if the pope were to take confession from Mr. Waldheim, and if that act gave Austria’s president the moral courage to do what he should have done years ago: publicly admit his Nazi past and withdraw from public life.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said in a statement that he hoped the pope uses the visit as a “new and different opportunity to confront the issues of he Holocaust.”

WILL LEGITIMIZE WALDHEIM

The Simon Wiesenthal Center appeared to take a stronger stand, saying that if such a meeting takes place it “will further serve to politically and morally legitimize Kurt Waldheim at a time when he remains shunned by virtually all Western leaders.”

Perhaps the sharpest statment was issued by Hadassah President Ruth Popkin, who said the pope’s planned meeting with Waldheim is “cause for the gravest concern among all who cherish justice and the blessed memory of those consumed in the flames of the Holocaust.

“Such a meeting gives a hollow ring to the pope’s statements on the suffering of Jews at Nazi hands, and seriously erodes the claim to moral authority of his holy office,” she added.

Popkin said further that speculation about Waldheim’s resignation as president of Austria does nothing to “rectify the pope’s misplaced compassion in failing to repudiate” the Austrian leader.

She said that if the pope “feels compelled by protocol” to meet with presidents of the nations he visits, “then it is incumbent upon him to postpone his visit to Austria until Kurt Waldheim is no longer its president.”

NEXT STORY