ROME (JTA) — Pope Benedict XVI’s rehabilitation of a traditionalist bishop who denies the full extent of the Holocaust could lead to a crisis in Jewish-Catholic relations, Jewish leaders said.
“By welcoming an open Holocaust denier into the Catholic Church without any recantation on his part, the Vatican has made a mockery of John Paul II’s moving and impressive repudiation and condemnation of anti-Semitism," Rabbi David Rosen, the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said in a statement.
The pope on Saturday rescinded the 1988 excommunication of British-born Richard Williamson and three other traditionalist bishops who were followers of Marcel Lefebvre, the late French archbishop who rejected Vatican reforms including those recognizing the validity of Judaism as a living religion.
Williamson has made several statements over the years questioning the reality of the Shoah. Last week he told Swedish television, "I believe there were no gas chambers," adding that only up to 300,000 Jews were killed in Nazi camps.
The pope’s action came just days before the annual international Holocaust Memorial Day on Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Jewish leaders in Italy and elsewhere had warned that rehabilitating Williamson could prove a serious setback to Jewish-Catholic relations, already strained by controversy over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII and last year’s reintroduction of an Easter prayer that some see as calling for conversion of the Jews.
Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said that rehabilitating Williamson would open a "deep wound."
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, said in a statement released Sunday, "The reinstatement is an internal Church matter. However, it is scandalous that someone of this stature in the Church denies the Holocaust. Denial of the Holocaust not only insults the survivors, memory of the victims, and the Righteous Among the Nations who risked their lives to rescue Jews, it is a brutal attack on truth.
"Even if the revocation of the excommunication is unrelated to Williamson’s comments regarding the Holocaust, what kind of message is this sending regarding the Church’s attitude toward the Holocaust? Although we understand that Williamson’s statements do not represent the Church’s stance, we continue to hope that the Church will vigorously condemn these unacceptable and odious comments."