News Analysis: French Church’s Apology Sparks Controversy over Imperfections

The French Roman Catholic Church’s “statement of repentance” for its silence during the persecution of Jews in Nazi-occupied France has been applauded by most Jewish leaders, but some aspects of it have been called into question by Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Sept. 30 apology, declared on the eve of Rosh Hashanah at the site of the Drancy transit camp outside Paris — where 64,000 of the 76,000 Jews deported from France during World War II were dispatched to Auschwitz — has left some Jewish officials wanting more.

Jean Kahn, president of the Consistoire, the official body overseeing the religious needs of France’s Jewish community, said the church had fallen short of his hopes for a statement recognizing the “specifically Jewish nature of the Shoah.”

“Neither the French church nor the Vatican has done so. There is still an important step to be made,” Kahn said in an interview.

Furthermore, “the pope, on his way to Brazil, said there were many holocausts, and I find that upsetting,” Kahn added, referring to comments Pope John Paul made Oct. 2 about the Drancy apology and whether the Vatican would soon be issuing a document on the Holocaust.

The Vatican’s “position on the Holocaust is a clear thing,” the pope told reporters aboard the papal jet taking him to Brazil. “But we must not forget that there have been other holocausts in the world. Let’s not forget these others.”

Kahn also wondered why the French church had waited so long to issue the apology, which came 57 years after the first anti-Semitic laws were promulgated by the pro-Nazi Vichy regime on Oct. 3, 1940.

“It could have been done earlier. It could have been done when the German church apologized two years ago” on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Kahn’s reaction sharply contrasted with that of most Jewish community leaders.

Henri Hajdenberg, president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations, hailed the church’s mea culpa as a landmark in improving Jewish-Catholic relations.

“Undoubtedly, the historic significance of your statement will break new ground in relations between Christians and Jews,” Hajdenberg said in a speech at last week’s ceremony.

“It gives hope of a more fraternal dialogue and full recognition of the legitimacy of each other’s faith.

“Your request for forgiveness is so intense, so powerful, so poignant, that it can’t but be heard by the surviving victims and their children,” he said.

Hajdenberg also paid tribute to seven priests who spoke out during the war against the mass arrests of Jews in France.

Although there were also some Catholic schools and orphanages that helped hide Jewish children, the church leadership largely backed the pro-Nazi Vichy regime.

Hajdenberg spoke after a statement of apology for the church’s silence was read on behalf of the bishops of France.

“The vast majority of church officials, bound up in loyalism and docility that went far beyond traditional obedience to the established powers, stuck to an attitude of conformism, caution and abstention,” the statement said.

“By their silence, the bishops of France acquiesced to flagrant violations of human rights and allowed the machine of death to be set in motion.

“Today we confess that silence was a mistake. We beg for the pardon of God, and we ask the Jewish people to hear this word of repentance.”

By seeking forgiveness, the French church has joined a season of remembrance in France, the focal point of which is the start this week of the trial of former Cabinet minister Maurice Papon, who is accused of ordering the deportation of 1,560 Jews, 223 of them children, to Nazi death camps.

Some observers noted that the church may have timed its apology to pre-empt disclosures from the trial, which is expected to re-examine the behavior of different sections of wartime French society, including the church, during the persecution of Jews.

French Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, while praising last week’s apology as the crowning of a spiritual revolution in the church, criticized its timing as “distressing because it removes the event from the context of its own history to link it exclusively” to the Papon trial.

“A fine ear is not needed to hear the maundering annoyance of some people who are wondering how long this will go on,” Finkielkraut told the Le Figaro daily newspaper.

Another sore point in Jewish-Catholic relations in France was the involvement of extremist members of the clergy in hiding former Lyon militia chief Paul Touvier from justice for nearly 50 years before he was arrested and found guilty in 1994 of crimes against humanity by a Versailles court. Touvier died in 1996 in a prison hospital.

The Jewish community was further outraged last year when philanthropist priest Abbe Pierre, who has long been voted France’s most popular figure, defended a longtime friend who cast doubt on the extent of the Holocaust.

Despite its alleged imperfections, the church’s apology — along with the Papon trial, and President Jacques Chirac’s 1995 public acknowledgment of the wartime French administration’s participation in the arrest and deportation of Jews – - is one in a long line of gestures that is helping France to close a painful and embarrassing chapter from its past.

On Tuesday, France’s police union asked for forgiveness for its role in rounding up Jews for deportation during World War II.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the church’s statement, delivered in the presence of some 20 Catholic bishops and several Jewish officials, was the acknowledgment of the role of Catholicism’s traditional anti-Semitic teachings in laying the groundwork for the Holocaust.

“We must, above all, recognize the indirect, if not direct role of the habitual anti-Jewish attitude — which the Christian people are guilty of maintaining – - in the historical process that led to the Shoah,” said the statement, which was read by Olivier de Berranger, bishop of the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, located near Drancy.

“On that ground flowered the venomous plant of the hatred of the Jews.”

The apology was not warmly greeted by all Catholics in a country that long denied its active role in the Final Solution.

Monsignor Thomas, bishop of Versailles, said that several Catholics had protested the church’s self-criticism.

“I received a phone call this morning from somone who said, `You have no right to assume the errors of your predecessors,’” Thomas said.

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