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Inside File: Israelis demand a Kurt reply

ISRAEL has instructed its envoy to the Vatican to demand clarification of why it awarded Kurt Waldheim a papal knighthood a few weeks ago.

I hope the Israeli ambassador has more luck than I did in prising from the Holy See the real reason why a former Austrian president and lacklustre United Nations chief who covered up his service in Hitler's army should be made Knight of the Order of Pius IX for his 'safeguarding of human rights'.

Such a knighthood, Vatican sources say, has to be approved by the Pope personally and happens 'very rarely'. It was conferred on Mr Waldheim on 6 July, almost two years to the day after he left his post as president of Austria. Why now?

Consider this: Austria, under Mr Waldheim's presidency, was one of the first countries to recognise Croatia after the break- up of Yugoslavia in 1991. That recognition had deep roots in the Roman Catholic Church. Mr Waldheim himself has old Croatian connections; he was awarded an honour during the Second World War by Ante Pavelic, the wartime Ustashe leader. The Pope was the only Western head of state to receive Mr Waldheim officially while he was Austrian president. The Pope, as part of a forthcoming peace mission to the former Yugoslavia, is now planning a trip to Croatia and Bosnia. He is not going to Belgrade.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week that israel was 'shocked, amazed and astonished' at the Vatican gesture and added: 'It seems those who bestowed this honour preferred to forget his record in the Second World War. His service as Secretary-General of the UN cannot hide this past.'

The Holy See press office yesterday insisted it had 'no information' about the citation and directed any queries to the Papal Nuncio in Vienna. An aide to the nuncio who conferred the knighthood in a private ceremony, Donato Squicciarini, said his office was not prepared to discuss the matter but referred instead to the nuncio's 6 July speech. This cited Mr Waldheim's 'efforts for peace' and 'safeguarding of human rights' during his time as UN secretary-general.

At the United Nations, Mr Waldheim is remembered as one of the least impressive and most unpopular secretaries-general the body has had. One former colleague recalls: 'He seemed mostly preoccupied with getting a job in one of the departments for one of his relatives, who had no qualifications whatsoever.'

The Vatican has never had a policy of imparting information or motivation for its actions. As one close observer put it: 'They might tell you to go and read the cathechism, that is as much of an explanation you'll get.' What is more surprising is that its civil service, the Curia - which has some of the most skilful and well- informed diplomats in the world - should have agreed to bestow the honour in the first place.

Israel and the Vatican established full diplomatic ties only in June. 'It seems so odd, now that the Vatican has said it was going to be so nice to Jews and everything,' said one Jewish rights activist whose entire family was rounded up in Salonika - where Mr Waldheim served - and taken to Auschwitz and Dachau.

This is the man who even a historians' commission appointed by the Austrian government concluded that, as an intelligence officer in the German army in the Balkans, had eased the way for Nazi atrocities. Independent investigations show he also eased the way for British officers to be shot. In 1987 he was banned from entering the United States as a private citizen, and remains so to this day.

Rabbi David Rosen, the Anti-Defamation League official responsible for relations with the Vatican, said that while the Holy See may use Mr Waldheim as an envoy for Ostpolitik, it 'still seems rather odd that the Curia with its exceptional diplomatic skills has laid itself open to these accusations, that will not be swept under the mat'.

Those who have dealt with the Pope directly over the past year say he does seem tired, but never for a moment to the extent where he appeared not to be in control. What harm this will do to the infant of bilateral relations depends on the explanation the Vatican gives to the Israeli envoy, Shmuel Hadas, over the next few days. 'But,' said an Israeli diplomat, 'there is no room for this act - regardless of the factor of whether or not we have full relations.'