/ 2 February 2009

Call for pope to step down over Holocaust denier

Attacks on Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust denier escalated on Monday, with one theologian calling on him to step down as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Criticism following the pope’s January 24 announcement has been particularly cutting in Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a crime punishable with a jail sentence.

”If the pope wants to do some good for the church, he should leave his job,” eminent liberal Catholic theologian Hermann Haering told the German daily Tageszeitung.

”That would not be a scandal, a bishop has to relinquish his position at 75 years, a cardinal loses his rights at 80 years,” he said.

Pope Benedict (81) sparked an international uproar when he cancelled the excommunication of four bishops consecrated in 1998 by the rebel conservative French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

The decision, especially relating to Richard Williamson, an English bishop who is on record as denying that six million Jews were gassed by the Nazis during World War II, has drawn widespread criticism from Jews and Catholics alike.

”A pardon that tastes of poison,” wrote Franco Garelli, an expert in religious history, in Italy’s daily La Stampa on Monday.

”The trouble caused by this complicated affair is evident not only outside the church but within it,” wrote the academic, who spoke of the ”profound discomfort stirred up by the lifting of the excommunication in numerous Catholic circles”.

Back in Germany, high-ranking Catholic officials said the pope risked losing vital support.

”There is obviously a loss of confidence” in the pope and ”rehabilitating a denier is always a bad idea”, the bishop of Hamburg, Werner Thissen, told the daily Hamburger Abendblatt on Monday.

The bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Gebhard Furst, meanwhile spoke of his ”uncertainty, incomprehension and deception” in the national Bild.

In France, home to Europe’s largest Jewish population, chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim denounced Williamson’s remarks as ”despicable” in an interview with Le Monde.

Williamson has dismissed as ”lies” the fact that about six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, most in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps, claiming that only between 200 000 and 300 000 Jews died before and during World War II.

French government spokesperson Luc Chatel called the remarks ”unacceptable, abject and intolerable”.

”I am a practising Catholic. In this regard, I am not sure that this reintegration is the best thing for the Church and for reconciliation at the heart of the Church,” said Chatel.

In Austria, where Pope Benedict last week named a controversial ultra-conservative priest as auxiliary bishop in Linz, criticism also came from within the Church.

Vienna’s cardinal and archbishop, Christoph Schoenborn, on Sunday lashed out at the decision to bring Williamson back into the fold, saying that ”he who denies the Holocaust cannot be rehabilitated within the Church”.

Belgian daily La Libre Belgique slammed the Vatican’s ”blindness” and ”deafness”, drawing links between Williamson and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

”Apparently no one can make the Iranian president and his henchman see reason” when they deny the ”truth” of the Holocaust, and it is the same with the ”bishop recently anointed by the highest authority of the Catholic Church,” it said.

For the pope, the ”blunder is extraordinary, especially given that his willingness for a dialogue with Judaism is indisputable,” said French daily Liberation. — Sapa-AFP