Jewish leaders condemn revisionist bishop's rehabilitation

Pope Benedict XVI issued a decree lifting the excommunication of four bishops, including a British-born bishop criticised for his Holocaust-denying statements. Jewish leaders in Italy said the move was "worrying and incomprehensible".


AFP - A papal decree drew Jewish ire Saturday because Pope Benedict XVI cancelled the excommunication of an English bishop on record as denying the Holocaust.

The bid to heal a 20-year schism with traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church saw the pontiff cancel the excommunication of four bishops consecrated by rebel French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

However, his decision drew immediate condemnation from Italy's Jewish leaders, with one speaking of a "negative, worrying and incomprehensible signal" just months from a planned visit to Israel already riven by controversial issues.

The Church published an edict lifting the 1998 sanction on Lefevre's successor Bernard Fellay and three other bishops in his breakaway conservative movement, Bernard de Tissier de Mallerais, Alfonso de Gallerata and Richard Williamson.

The English bishop, Williamson, is on record as denying the existence of the gas chambers during the Nazi Holocaust.

"I believe there were no gas chambers.... I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but none of them by gas chambers," Williamson was quoted as saying in an interview with Swedish SVT television.

He added, "There was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies!"

Quoted by ANSA news agency, Renzo Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said the decision sent a "negative, worrying and incomprehensible signal."

It is "terrible that a bishop who denies the Holocaust, an irrefutable historical fact, should be rehabilitated and legitimised," he added.

The Grand Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, said that "dark clouds seem to be gathering over the (ongoing) dialogue between Jews and Christians."

"If this decision is not simply a pardon, but presages readmission into the corridoors of episcopal power, it will become even more problematic," he added.

Uneasy relations between the Vatican and Israel have been further strained by plans to declare Nazi-era Pope Pius XII a saint, despite widespread criticism of his inaction during the Holocaust.

The controversy, which has lingered for decades, resurfaced in October as the pontiff defended the memory of his wartime predecessor and said he wanted him beatified soon -- a first step towards declaring him a saint.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said recent controversial statements by Williamson, 68, were a separate issue.

German prosecutors said Friday they had launched a probe against Williamson on suspicion of inciting racial hatred with his comments.

In a statement issued Saturday, Fellay -- who also expressed his "brotherly gratitude" to the pope -- distanced the Saint Pius X community from Williamson's opinions, suggesting that Williamson was addressing a "secular" issue rather than one of "faith and morality."

Lombardi welcomed the papal decree, dated January 21 and signed on behalf of the pope by the head of the Church's congregation of bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

He said the edict, which had been revealed Thursday by an Italian newspaper, was "good news", and "a very important step towards reconstituting the full communion of the Church."

He added, however, that the "full communion" had not yet been attained, and that the status of the Society of Saint Pius still had to be defined.

Lefebvre, who died in 1991, was excommunicated in 1988 by Benedict's predecessor John Paul II for having consecrated the bishops in defiance of the Vatican's authority.

Lefebvre had led a schism from the Church over the more ecumenical approach reflected in the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s and in particular the abandonment of the traditional Latin mass.

He founded the Priestly Society of Saint Pius X, which claims 150,000 followers across the world, mainly in France and Brazil.

In June last year, Fellay rejected overtures from the Vatican for a reconciliation.

Since assuming office in April 2005, Benedict has made great efforts to heal the schism with the more traditionalist Catholic movement, granting a private audience to Fellay in mid-2005.

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