The long-promised removal of the Carmelite convent from Auschwitz has been indefinitely postponed by a Polish Catholic cardinal, a move that Jewish leaders say will severely strain Catholic-Jewish relations.
Cardinal Franciszek Macharski, the archbishop of Krakow, announced on Vatican Radio Tuesday that the construction of a proposed inter-religious information center was now “an impossibility.”
The center was to have been built off the site of the former death camp, and was to have housed the convent as well.
Macharski attributed his decision to “a violent campaign of accusations and defamation, and offensive — not only verbal — aggression, which echoed up to Auschwitz.”
The campaign, Macharski said, was the work of “certain Western Jewish circles.”
Jewish organizations have reacted with outrage, not only at Macharski’s nullification of the agreement to move the convent, but at the wording of his statement.
Numerous Jewish organizations have publicly called for the convent’s removal, and demonstrations have been mounted at the convent itself.
Last month, seven New York Jewish activists climbed over the fence surrounding the convent, and asked to speak with the nuns. They were beaten and dragged off the grounds.
This demonstration reportedly incensed Macharski. Sources in Europe say that Macharski called the demonstration “violent and intolerable” in a meeting with local priests.
FREEZE IN DIALOGUE URGED
Rabbi Avraham Weiss, who led the demonstration at Auschwitz, called Thursday for Jewish leaders to “freeze dialogue” with the Vatican until the convent is moved.
Weiss, who released his statement from Israel where he is visiting, also said the Polish government should bear responsibility for the convent, and suggested a travel boycott of Poland by Israel and world Jewish organizations if the situation does not change.
Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, who has been deeply involved with the convent issue, is taking a more conciliatory approach.
He said that Polish leaders had told him in the past few weeks that Macharski’s commitment to built the convent and the center by 1990 “was firm.”
But, Tanenbaum said, the recent demonstrations have caused a backlash in Poland and “touched off a furious reaction among Polish Catholics, who now support, even insist, that the Carmelite convent not be moved.”
Tanenbaum said that he was told by Macharski’s personal secretary, Stanislav Musial, that the statement “does not represent a rupture between the Polish Catholic church and the Jewish people.”
Tanenbaum described it as “a temporary interruption, but not a break in the relationship.”
He said that Macharski wants to make the point that it is impossible to make plans to move forward as long as the “attacks on the convent nuns” continue.
Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, said “Cardinal Macharski’s remarks are brutal and violent and constitute a tragic blow to those of us in the Jewish and Catholic world who have worked for so long to foster mutual understanding and respect.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, characterized Macharski’s language as “hateful exaggerated rhetoric that is not the language of love and compassion that one would expect to hear from a cardinal.”
Macharski is one of four Catholic prelates who negotiated in Geneva with a Jewish delegation the agreement to relocate the convent, first in July 1986 and then in 1987. The representatives agreed on the convent’s removal by Feb. 22 of this year and the building of the new convent and interreligious center.
‘LACK OF RESPECT’
In his Tuesday statement, Macharski said he was suspending action on building the center “because of lack of respect for the nuns and for their human and Christian dignity, the peace to which they are entitled was disturbed. Christian conventions, the symbols of faith and of piety, were not respected.”
He added that Polish Jews were the only ones who had protested against the demonstrators’ “intrusion into the convent and successive attempts to take it over.”
Macharski concluded that in an atmosphere of “aggression and disquiet,” Jews and Catholic could not cooperate toward “the building of a place dedicated to reciprocal respect.”
The archbishop’s statement came at a time when there were indications from other church leaders and Polish officials that action on the movement of the convent could be forthcoming.
Israeli officials said last week that the Polish deputy foreign minister had indicated to Israelis that his government would intervene in the matter.
Earlier this month, one of the Catholic representatives who signed the agreement along with Macharski also said that progress would be forthcoming.
Albert Decourtray, the French cardinal of Lyon, solemnly promised that the convent will be removed “at its earliest,” and blamed the delays on “local bureaucracy” in Poland.
But officials from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who met with Vatican officials last month, said they were “not surprised” by the announcement.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the center, said that while the Catholic Church was silent during the Holocaust, “they now seek to claim exclusivity over the unmarked graves of their loved ones.”
Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said “I sincerely hope that this is not going to be the last word from Catholic authorities.”
Rudin is also present chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, a group that deals primarily with relations with Catholics.
Rudin called Macharski’s reference to “Western Jewish circles” a “a very ominous kind of statement.”
He said that Macharski’s comments “reflect the growing seriousness throughout the world of the state of Catholic-Jewish relations.”
In Paris, Jean Kahn, president of CRIF, the Council of Representative Jewish Institutions in France, lashed out at Macharski’s decision, saying it is a flagrant breach of a negotiated agreement and hinting that anti-Semitism is still rife in Poland.
The European Union of Jewish Students also expressed outrage at Macharski’s comments.
In their statement, the students noted that Macharski’s remarks, coming at a time when there is controversy over comments by the pope on the Jews, was particularly upsetting.
Sermons by Pope John Paul II over the past two weeks seem to imply that the Christian covenant with God superseded the Jewish covenant with God, and that the Christian covenant was forged because of “Israel’s infidelity.”
This conflicts with previous statements by the pope that God’s covenant with the Jews was “never revoked.”
The students said in their statement that the combination of the pope’s remarks and Macharski’s announcement “seems to imply that the Catholic church believes that the Shoah was retribution for the Jews’ infidelity.”
(JTA Paris bureau chief Edwin Eytan contributed to this report.)
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