VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict has given credence to “the most vulgar aspect of anti-Semitism” by rehabilitating a Holocaust-denying bishop, said Elie Wiesel, the death camp survivor, author and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Wiesel also said there was no way the Vatican could have not known about the bishop’s past and it may have been done “intentionally”.
“What does the pope think we feel when he did that? That a man who is a bishop and Holocaust denier — and today of course the most vulgar aspect of anti-Semitism is Holocaust denial — and for the pope to go that far and do what he did, knowing what he knows, is disturbing,” Wiesel said by phone from New York.
“The result of this move is very simple: to give credence to a man who is a Holocaust denier, which means that the sensitivity to us as Jews is not what it should be,” he said late on Tuesday.
British-born Richard Williamson, one of four traditionalist bishops whose excommunications were lifted on Saturday, has made several statements denying the full extent of the Holocaust of European Jews, as accepted by mainstream historians.
Williamson told Swedish television: “I believe there were no gas chambers” and only up to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, instead of 6 million.
His comments caused an uproar among Jewish leaders and progressive Catholics, many of whom said it had cast a dark shadow over 50 years of Christian-Jewish dialogue.
“It’s a pity because Jewish-Catholic relations, thanks to John XXIII and John Paul II, had never been as good, never in history,” Wiesel said, referring to the popes who revolutionised relations with Jews after 2,000 years of persecution and mistrust.
Asked if he believed it was possible that the Vatican did not know that Williamson was a Holocaust denier, Wiesel, who won the Nobel in 1986 and survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, said:
“Oh no! The Church knows what it does, especially on that level for the pope to readmit this man, they know what they are doing. They know what they are doing and they did it intentionally. What the intention was, I don’t know.”
Since the furore over the pope’s decision to lift the excommunication, the Vatican has condemned Williamson’s comments as “grave, upsetting (and) unacceptable”, restating the Church’s — and Benedict’s — teachings against anti-Semitism.
Wiesel said he could not offer the Vatican any advice on how to put things right with Jews but something had to be done.
“The Vatican created the situation. It’s up to them to resolve it. As it is, it is a very sad situation. So unexpected because we had high hopes for the relations between Jews and Catholics because they had been so good under those two popes ... and now it’s the opposite,” said the 80-year-old.
Wiesel recounted his experiences in death camps in the book “Night”. Asked what the controversy meant to him personally as a survivor, he said: “Puzzlement, shock, and immense sadness.”
On Tuesday, Williamson’s superior in the traditionalist movement publicly apologised to the pope and said William had been disciplined and ordered to remain silent on political or historical issues.
But Wiesel agreed with other Jewish leaders who have said the episode would have long-lasting ramifications in the fight against anti-Semitism.
“One thing is clear. This move by the pope surely will not help us fight anti-Semitism. Quite the opposite,” he said.