ROME, Dec. 5 (JTA) Protests are mounting over a meeting expected to take place later this month between Pope John Paul II and an Austrian politician who has praised Hitler and members of the Nazi SS.
Israel issued a statement last week warning against the consequences of a meeting between Jorg Haider and the pope, and its ambassador to the Holy See personally expressed Israel’s concerns to the Vatican’s foreign minister.
A leading Jewish interfaith group, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, also urged the pope to cancel the meeting. In addition, Italian Jewish and leftist groups were discussing possible protest measures.
“Haider is a politician who is ostracized by the enlightened world,” said the Nov. 30 statement issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry. “Granting honor to a man of this kind is liable to send a wrong and inappropriate message, unintentionally.”
Such a meeting, it said, “would cause considerable disappointment and displeasure to the government of Israel.”
Haider, the dominant force and former leader of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, is expected to meet the pope on Dec. 16, when he formally presents this year’s Christmas tree to the Vatican.
The tree, which is displayed in St. Peter’s Square throughout the holiday season, comes this year from Austria’s Carinthia region, where Haider is governor. The gift was arranged in 1997, before Haider took office.
The son of Nazi sympathizers, Haider has long been reviled for his xenophobic positions.
Years ago, Haider praised Hitler’s employment policies and members of the Nazi SS. He has repeatedly apologized for the remarks.
When the Freedom Party entered Austria’s coalition government earlier this year, the European Union imposed unprecedented diplomatic sanctions on Austria. Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna.
The E.U. sanctions have since been lifted.
Still, Jewish and other observers fear that a papal meeting with Haider could send a dangerous message to far-right forces in Europe at a time when reports of nationalist, xenophobic and neo-Nazi activity are on the rise.
The pope, they say, could be interpreted as granting legitimacy not just to Haider, but to the rightist ideology he is perceived as representing.
Moreover, Jewish sources have expressed concern that the papal meeting could be another in a series of incidents clouding Jewish-Vatican relations in recent months.
These include the beatification in September of the anti-Semitic 19th- century Pope Pius IX and a Vatican document rejecting the idea that other religions are equal to Catholicism.
Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said a meeting with Haider “would undoubtedly send a misleading signal at a time when anti-Semitic propaganda and activities have begun to resurface in many corners of the world.”
Reich made his comments in a letter last Friday to the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
“If a meeting with an extremist demagogue, whose past record is replete with pro-Nazi and anti-democratic utterances and actions, is the price” of the Christmas tree, “we strongly urge the Holy See to consider that it may be too high a price to pay,” Reich said.
Last month, protesters issued a note saying that Haider was not welcome in Rome. The protesters included leading leftist political figures, associations of World War II resistance fighters, actors, directors and the president of Rome’s Jewish community, Leone Paserman.
Anti-Haider posters also were put up around the city by left-wing political parties.
Earlier this year, protests erupted when Haider visited northern Italy.
In July, left-wing protesters carrying banners reading “Haider Raus” German for “Haider Out” clashed with police in the northern Italian beach resort of Jesolo.
At that time, Haider received the keys to the city from Jesolo’s mayor, Renato Martin, who was attempting to gain support for an Italian far-right political movement.