by Tony Paterson in Berlin
Germany's four-year love affair with its own Bavarian-born Pope was in tatters yesterday after Chancellor Angela Merkel accused the pontiff of giving the impression that Holocaust denial was "permissible" through his decision to pardon the British-born bishop, Richard Williamson.
Ms Merkel's extraordinary decision to wade in to a worsening row between the Vatican and Jewish and Catholic leaders worldwide came just over a week after the Pope formally rehabilitated Bishop Williamson, who said in a recent interview: "Not a single Jew died in a gas chamber."
The German conservative leader said it was not her custom to intervene in church affairs, but added: "This is different when it comes to matters of principle, and I believe it is a matter of principle when... the impression is created that denying the Holocaust could be permissible."
Ms Merkel demanded that the Pope make it "absolutely clear" that there could be no Holocaust denial and that there "must be positive dealings with the Jews". In what amounted to a blistering condemnation of the Pope's handling of the crisis, she added: "In my view, these issues have not yet been satisfactorily clarified."
The Vatican hit back just hours later, with spokesman Federico Lombardi declaring that the German Pope's position on the Holocaust and Holocaust denial "could not be any clearer".
There was speculation yesterday that Ms Merkel's decision to publicly criticise Benedict XVI had followed a sea change in the German Catholic Church leadership's attitude to him. Her onslaught came only hours after Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz called the decision to rehabilitate Bishop Williamson a "catastrophe".
Bishop Williamson, a 68-year-old Cambridge graduate, made the comments on Swedish television a fortnight ago. He was pardoned as part of a move by the Pope in late January to overturn the excommunication of four bishops ordained by the arch-conservative Society of Saint Pius X. The decision has been interpreted as a clear demonstration of the shift to the right that was already under way in the Vatican. But in Germany the response to the Pope's actions been a mixture of dismay, anger and disappointment.
In marked contrast to jubilant German newspaper headlines of April 2005 which greeted the new Bavarian-born pontiff and reluctant member of the Hitler Youth with the words: "We are the Pope" – this week's front cover of Der Spiegel magazine carried a photograph of Benedict XVI and the headline: "A German Pope disgraces the Catholic Church."
Last week, Israel's Chief Rabbinate suspended ties because of Bishop Williamson's reinstatement. "Without a public apology and recanting it will be difficult to continue the dialogue," the Chief Rabbinate director-general Oded Weiner said. Germany's Central Council of Jews announced last week that it, too, was cutting ties. Salomon Korn, the council's vice-president, accused Benedict XVI of undoing all the efforts to reconcile Jews and Catholics that had been started by his predecessor Pope John Paul II. "A German Pope of all people – and this is how the world will see it – has pardoned a Holocaust denier, and that just before Holocaust Memorial Day," Mr Korn said. "I thought I was dealing with a considerate and far-sighted man. Obviously I was wrong."
A new wave of embarrassment swept Germany and Austria earlier this week following the Vatican's decision to promote a priest who claimed that the Harry Potter books "spread Satanism" and that Hurricane Katrina was an act of "divine retribution".
Der Spiegel yesterday quoted Vatican insiders who suggested that the Pope was surrounded by lackeys who shielded him from the media. Hans Küng, a well-known Catholic theologian, said: "Benedict XVI is so cut off from the real world that he has no idea how disastrously his actions are received."
The unacceptable faces of Catholicism
British bishop consecrated by schismatic French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Has said the Vatican is controlled by Satan and once declared the historical evidence was "hugely against six million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers... I believe there were no gas chambers."
Regarded as unofficial chaplain of Italy's separatist Northern League. He told an Italian newspaper: "I know the gas chambers existed... but I don't know if anyone was killed in them. I know that, in addition to the official version, there is another version based on the observations of the first Allied technicians to enter."
Gerhard Maria Wagner
Appointed auxiliary bishop in the Austrian city of Linz last week. In 2005 he suggested that disasters such as Hurricane Katrina were the result of "spiritual environmental pollution". "It is surely not an accident," he added, "that all five of New Orleans's abortion clinics... were destroyed."