NEW YORK (Jul. 31)
With little fanfare from the international community, Pope John Paul II has named Kurt Waldheim a “papal knight.”
Reportedly praising Waldheim for “safeguarding human rights” during his term as secretary-general of the United Nations from 1972 to 1981, Donato Squicciarini, the papal nuncio to Austria, conferred the honor at the Vatican Embassy in Vienna.
In a July 6 ceremony, Waldheim was made a member of the Ordine Piano, an order of knights named directly by the pope.
Waldheim, the former president of Austria, was a Nazi intelligence officer stationed in the Balkans during World War II. He has been implicated in the deportations of Jews and reprisal killings of anti-Nazi partisans in the region.
In 1987, Waldheim was barred from visiting the United States because of his wartime activities. In June 1987, the pope became the only Western leader to receive Waldheim as a head of state.
The pope’s 1987 meeting with Waldheim dismayed many Catholic leaders as well as Jews.
Waldheim’s knighting, which came less than a year after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel, perplexed and dismayed many in the Jewish world.
“Why do it now, when he knows it’s an affront to the Jewish community?” asked Kent Schiner, international president of B’nai B’rith.
“On one hand he has extended the olive branch, and on the other hand he does something like this,” Schiner said of the pope.
Some attributed the knighting to the strength of the Catholic hierarchy within Austria, a predominantly Catholic country.
“There are a lot of competing interests,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman nevertheless deplored the action.
“It’s insulting to the victims of Nazism,” said Foxman. “If there is a way to undo this, I hope they will do so.”
The knighting reportedly received little play in the Italian media and was not formally announced by the Vatican.
The International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, the organized Jewish community’s main liaison with the Vatican, faxed a letter to the Vatican last week asking for an explanation for the knighting. The group has not yet received a reply.
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the Catholic Bishop’s Conference, said the honor should be seen in a limited context: “I would see the knighthood as something done for an individual without any implication intended for such larger issues as Catholic-Jewish relations.”