NEW YORK (Jan. 10)
The Vatican’s announcement that the pope would likely meet Austrian President Kurt Waldheim during a papal visit to Austria violated agreements Jewish leaders thought had been worked out during their previous meetings with Catholic officials, according to Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.
As a result, a letter sent Thursday to the Vatican and signed by members of the International Jewish Committee on Interfaith Consultations was “the most sharply worded protest ever sent to the Vatican by IJCIC,” said Steinberg.
“The announcement on Vatican Radio dealt a double blow, especially to those who supported the meetings with the pope in Miami” last September said Steinberg.
“We object not only to the substance of the announcement, but we thought there was a procedure in place whereby we would receive some consultation or warning, as the agreement said, ‘to avoid future misunderstandings,’ “he said.
WJC is one of five constituent organizations of IJCIC, whose other members are the Israel Interfaith Association, American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International and the Synagogue Council of America.
The group’s letter, directed to Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, warns further meetings between the pope and Waldheim “could have the most serious implications for Vatican-Jewish relations.”
MAUTHAUSEN VISIT UNCONFIRMED
The letter also objects to reports, “not corroborated,” that Waldheim would accompany the pope on a visit to the Mauthausen concentration camp.
(The Vatican has denied those reports, according to a story Friday in The New York Times. But the paper quoted Vatican officials as saying that the pope and Waldheim are likely to meet as many as three times in keeping with protocol.)
The IJCIC letter stops short of requesting a meeting between Jewish officials and Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state, despite previous agreements that Jewish groups could seek such meetings “to avoid future misunderstandings.”
“We felt we’d been down that road before and accomplished nothing,” explained Steinberg. Instead, the letter asks for a response from Willebrands in light of evidence that has surfaced about Waldheim’s activities as an intelligence officer in the German army during World War II.
An international commission is currently investigating charges, brought by the WJC and other groups, that Waldheim was personally involved in atrocities against Jews and Yugoslav partisans in the Balkans during his army service. The Austrian president has acknowledged that he served in the German army, but has denied any knowledge of the atrocities.
Waldheim met with the pope at the Vatican last June in a move that outraged Jewish leaders and triggered a major setback in efforts to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. Jewish leaders discussed their dismay in meetings with the pope and Catholic officials outside Rome on Sept. 1, and again with the pope during his visit to Miami on Sept. 11.
American Jewish leaders continued late last week to protest a second meeting between the pope and Waldheim.
Said Jerome Chanes, associate national affairs director of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, “We continue to make clear that Catholic-Jewish relations in America are cordial. But it is Vatican-Jewish relations that are inherently problematic. This is another of the unpleasant surprises that have been visited upon us by this present Vatican administration.”