The Vatican stirred a diplomatic maelstrom yesterday when it announced that it had lifted the excommunication of four rebel bishops, including the British Holocaust-denier Richard Williamson.
The decree repealing the 20-year-old Vatican punishment, imposed after the traditionalist French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated the four as bishops in defiance of the Pope's authority, was signed on Wednesday by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops. This coincided with the broadcast on Swedish state television of an interview with Mr Williamson in which the breakaway bishop denied the Holocaust.
"I believe there were no gas chambers... I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but none of them by gas chambers," he told SVT television in an interview that was recorded in Germany last November. "There was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies!"
Mr Williamson, 68, who is the rector of the Seminary of Our Lady Co-Redemptrix in La Reja, Argentina, is no stranger to controversy. He has endorsed "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", a notorious anti-Semitic forgery, and claimed that Jews are bent on world domination. He supports conspiracy theories on the assassination of President Kennedy and the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, and has accused the Vatican of being under the power of Satan.
The Vatican's decision comes at a time of heightened sensitivity in its dealings with Israel following the bloodshed in Gaza. Pope Benedict XVI recently ruffled feathers in Israel by expressing the hope that regional elections would produce a new generation of leaders in the Middle East capable of making peace, as did Cardinal Renato Martino, the President of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, when he likened Gaza to a concentration camp. Jewish leaders, including Rome's chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, had urged Pope Benedict not to lift the ban and to reiterate the Vatican's condemnation of Holocaust denial.
The head of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi, said that there was no connection between Mr Williamson's views and the decision to lift his excommunication. "The Vatican has acted in relation to the excommunication and its removal for the four bishops, an action that has nothing to do with the highly criticisable statements of an individual," Fr Lombardi told reporters.
Vatican Radio also pointed out that Mr Williamson's statements had been severely condemned by other members of the Priestly Fraternity of St Pius X, the breakaway organisation founded by Archbishop Lefebvre in Switzerland.
Bishop Bernard Fellay, the head of the fraternity and another of the rebel bishops readmitted into communion with the Catholic church, said the TV interview was an attempt to defame the organisation.
Archbishop Lefebvre broke with the Vatican over his opposition to the modernising reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, in particular, his refusal to give up the traditional Latin mass. He was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988 after illegally consecrating the four bishops.
For Pope Benedict, the lifting of the excommunication heals a wound that had festered for 20 years and readmits a thriving community that has 150,000 followers in more than 20 countries. But what should have been a joyous occasion, ending what the Vatican called "the scandal of division", will be overshadowed by the Williamson interview.
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