Pope Instructs Carmelite Nuns to Vacate Convent at Auschwitz

A group of Carmelite nuns has received instructions from Pope John Paul II to vacate their convent on the site of the Auschwitz death camp, and has agreed to do so, say sources close to the situation.

Tadeusz Rakoczy, the Catholic bishop who presides over the town of Oswiecim, where Auschwitz is located, read a letter of instruction the pope sent to the 14 nuns on Wednesday.

According to sources in Poland, the pope wrote: “By the will of the church, you are to move to another convent in Oswiecim.

“Each one of you is free to choose either to continue her life as a Carmelite nun in the same community or to go back to her convent of origin. This is undoubtedly a moment of trial for each one of you,” wrote the pope.

According to Stanislaw Krajewski, the American Jewish Committee representative in Poland, Rakoczy said the nuns “received the letter with full obedience to the Holy Father’s will.”

And in New York, Elan Steinberg, a spokesman for the chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, quoted Rakoczy as saying the nuns agreed to move “within a reasonable time.”

A Vatican spokesman in Rome said that the letter, written in Polish, was not a direct order for the nuns to leave the convent “although it could be interpreted as such.

“It was a letter in which the Holy Father expressed his thinking at this moment,” the spokesman said. “Before making their decision whether or not to leave the convent, the nuns had asked what was the thinking of the Holy Father on the situation.”

In Paris, Jean Kahn, president of the European Jewish Congress, praised the pope’s letter, saying it was “high time for the pope himself to take the initiative to give the only order able to convince the nuns to leave the premises. Delay after delay, this affair seemed to never end.”

PROTESTS CALLED OFF

Theo Klein, the chief Jewish representative at the 1986 and 1987 negotiations in Geneva with the Catholic Church over the convent at Auschwitz, said Wednesday that he “will be fully satisfied when the nuns leave the convent and return it to where it belongs” and “take away the cross they erected in front of the building.”

These steps, taken by the very highest level of Catholic hierarchy, appear to remove all obstacles to the participation of Jewish groups in commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, slated to be held Sunday and Monday in the Polish capital.

As a result, Rabbi Avi Weiss, president of Amcha, the Coalition for Jewish Concerns, cancelled a protest he had planned to hold at Auschwitz during the Warsaw commemoration.

However, the activist rabbi warned in a statement: “If the sisters do not leave the Auschwitz convent in one month, we will have no choice but to return to demonstrate.”

Weiss and a small group of followers demonstrated at the convent in July 1989, which led to physical confrontation between Weiss and supporters of the convent, and to a diplomatic imbroglio on an international scale over the matter.

Despite the apparently unequivocal instructions from the Vatican, there continue to be tensions in Poland over the planned relocation of the nuns to a convent nearby the death camp.

In the Polish daily Zycie Warszawy, Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, vice secretary of the Polish Episcopate, or bishops conference, wrote Wednesday that the decision to move or not “is an expression of the nuns’ sovereign will.

“Of course, in the Catholic Church there exists the concept of obedience, but the sisters have the right to make their own decision. What can be decided locally should not be decided higher,” Pieronek wrote. “Legally, the abandoned convent will still be a convent for a hundred years — that is the order’s property.”

According to Krajewski, Pieronek also said that international Jewish organizations exacerbate the problem, while the tiny Jewish community in Poland is cooperative.

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondent Michel Di Paz in Paris and JTA staff writer Debra Nussbaum Cohen in New York.)

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