Pope tells American Jewish leaders he plans to make visit to Israel in May
VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI told American Jewish leaders yesterday that he plans to visit Israel in May, coupling the long-awaited announcement with his strongest condemnation of Holocaust denial.
The 81-year-old pope assured the group that the Catholic Church was "profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism," helping to ease Jewish furor that followed the pope's reinstatement of an ultraconservative bishop who questioned the extent of the Holocaust.
"Such warmth, with an outstretched hand," said New York Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor, after the audience in the frescoed Consistory Hall. "The visit is on, no hesitation, reservations."
There has been only one other official visit by a pope to the Jewish state. Both sides said it will take place in May.
The trip, talked about since the start of the German pope's papacy in 2005, has been up in the air for some time due to problems raised by both sides. The latest jolt came when Benedict last month lifted the excommunications of four ultraconservative bishops - one of whom denied that Jews were gassed by the Nazis during World War II.
Protests by Jews, the pope's own bishops in Germany, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany led the Vatican to demand the bishop recant, easing tensions and leading to yesterday's meeting with more than 60 representatives of American Jewish organizations.
Addressing the group in English as they sat in chairs before him, Benedict called the slaughter of 6 million Jews a crime against God.
The Vatican said Benedict did not know about the views of Bishop Richard Williamson when he agreed to lift the excommunication, but he clearly referred to him yesterday.
"The hatred and contempt for men, women, and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity," Benedict told the visiting leaders, using the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. "This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures."
Jewish leaders applauded his comments, most saying the crisis with the church over Williamson's comments was over.
"We came here with heavy hearts because of recent events, but we came away pleased and honored by the words of His Holiness," Malcolm Hoenlein, vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told reporters.
Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the Vatican should excommunicate Williamson again because of his remarks.
"Every moment that he stays in the church gives him credibility," he told reporters after the meeting.
"Today's statement was important but it did not bring closure," he said. "You cannot condemn Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and reinstate someone who to this day continues to be an anti-Semite and deny the Holocaust."
In an interview with Swedish state TV broadcast Jan. 21, Williamson said only about 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed, none of them gassed.
Williamson has apologized for causing distress to the pope, but has not recanted. He said he would correct himself if he is satisfied by the evidence, but insisted in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel that examining it "will take time."
Benedict's trip had been planned before the Williamson affair surfaced.
Pope John Paul II made the first official visit in 2000, moving many when he prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.
The only other visit by a pope, by Pope Paul VI in 1964, reflected the strained nature of the relationship in those years.