Mixed Jewish response to Pope's attempt to mend rupture

By Ecumenical News International
4 Feb 2009

A Jewish leader in Israel has welcomed a response by Pope Benedict XVI to a statement condemning Holocaust denial and for his expression of "full and indisputable solidarity" with Jews. A German Jewish leader, however, says relations with the Roman Catholic Church are suspended and the Israeli says the matter is not resolved - write Judith Sudilovsky and Anli Serfontein from Jerusalem and Trier, Germany.

The president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany (Zentralrat der Juden), Charlotte Knobloch, said she has broken off all inter-religious contact with representatives of the Catholic Church, because of the reinstatement of excommunicated Richard Williamson who denies that Jews died in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust.

Knoblcoh was quoted in the Rheinische Post newspaper of 30 January as saying that "there would, at the moment, be no dialogue between me and the Church, and I accentuate 'at the moment'. I would like to see an outcry in the [Catholic] church against this action of the Pope."

At a weekly audience on 28 January, Pope Benedict said he expressed his solidarity with Jewish people and he warned against any form of Holocaust denial. The pontiff's words followed an international outcry about British-born Richard Williamson, who was among four prelates who had been excommunicated for opposing reforms in the Roman Catholic Church 20 years earlier and after their own group had made them bishops.

"While I renew with affection the expression of my full and unquestionable solidarity with our [Jewish] brothers, I hope the memory of the Shoah [Hebrew for Holocaust] will induce humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of hate when it conquers the heart of man."

The director general of the Israel Chief Rabinnate Oded Wiener, said on 29 January in Jerusalem, that the response of German-born Benedict was a "great step forward". "Yesterday the Pope sent an extremely important message not only for Jews but for all humankind," Wiener said. "He also mentioned the Holocaust as a warning light to all humanity ... that it should never happen again.,"

On 27 January, Wiener had sent a letter to Cardinal Walter Kasper, who heads the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with Jewry expressing "sorrow and pain" concerning Williamson's reinstatement which had caused "great consternation" in Israel and the Jewish world.

In the letter Wiener said that although the move had not been intended to relate to the Catholic Church's relationship with the Jews it could not but affect it. In the letter, sent in the name of the Chief Rabbinate and its joint commission members, Wiener asked for a public apology and recantation of his statements from Bishop Williamson, without which, he wrote, it would be "very difficult for the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to continue its dialogue with the Vatican as before".

The letter also asked that a scheduled March meeting for the joint commission be postponed until the matter was clarified. Wiener said the letter was not intended to cut ties with the Vatican, which are "very important" to both sides and he has been in touch with Vatican representatives both after sending the letter and after the Pope's statement. "The ties were never cut," he said. He said the Chief Rabbinate and Vatican commissions would "need to think together" of the steps that will need to be taken in order to put the matter behind them.

The Pope had said at his weekly audience that the traditionalist movement to which four bishops excommunicated belonged, including Williamson, would need to be loyal to the papacy and the teachings of the 1962 to 1965 Second Vatican Council. The four had rejected these along with others known as Lefebvrists after their leader, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre of France.

Williamson, who is aged 68, was among four prelates excommunicated because Lefebvre, founder of the Society of Pius X that opposed the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, had consecrated them as bishops.

In an interview conducted in November and broadcast by Swedish television a week ago, Williamson had said: "I believe there were no gas chambers". He said that no more than 300 000 Jews perished under the Nazis. "The historical evidence is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy by Adolf Hitler," Williamson had said.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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