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Slovak bishop no saint, historians say

PRAGUE, Oct 29 (JTA) – A dispute over the wartime activities of a Slovak bishop who is a candidate for sainthood threatens to sour relations between Jews and Catholics here.

During a visit to Slovakia in 1995, Pope John Paul II suggested that the late Bishop Jan Vojtassak could be suitable for canonization on the grounds that the Communists persecuted him because of his faith. But five Israeli historians have come forward to claim that Vojtassak played an active role in the Holocaust as a senior official in the wartime Slovak government, which was sympathetic to the Nazis.

They have called on the Catholic Church to halt the process of canonization.

“We do not want to see Vojtassak being canonized,” said one of the historians, Gila Fatran, from her home in Tel Aviv. “He was a vice chairman of the Slovak State Council in 1942 when it agreed that Jews could be deported from the country.”

According to the historians, who received cooperation from the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava, documents prove that the bishop was present at a meeting in March 1942, when Slovak Prime Minister Vojtech Tuka outlined plans and costs involved in deporting tens of thousands of Jews.

They also claim that the bishop personally ensured that at least one Jew living in his community was handed over to the Nazis for deportation to a concentration camp.

They have outlined their case in open letters to the Slovak president and prime minister. Senior Slovak Catholic representatives appear to be closing ranks around Vojtassak, arguing that the bishop did not join the State Council until 1943, after the deportations had been completed.

They also point to Vojtassak’s treatment by the postwar Communist authorities.

The bishop was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 1951 on trumped-up charges and was released under an amnesty in 1963. Slovak authorities quashed his original conviction after the fall of communism in 1990, 25 years after his death. Slovak Bishop Conference Chairman Frantisek Tondra has dismissed the historians’ account, but conceded that the issue should be investigated.

Jozef Weiss, director of Slovakia’s Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities, said he was satisfied that Vojtassak attended the meeting in March 1942.

“I am sure he was at this meeting and that he caused a Jewish citizen to be deported. I do not think he should be canonized,” Weiss said.

The case has wider implications, according to Fatran.

“If he is canonized, I am sure that this will damage relations between the Catholic and Jewish faiths,” she said. It is not clear yet how far Vojtassak’s canonization process has advanced, but cases commonly take many years as the Vatican thoroughly investigates each candidate. The Israeli historians said they had not approached the Vatican on the issue, but had passed on their open letter to the Slovak Bishops Conference.

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