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The Pope vs Holocaust deniers

  • 25 May 2009

This month the Pope visited the Middle East. His 'pilgrimage of peace' was prompted, in part, by the controversy surrounding his revoking of the excommunication of a Bishop who has publicly denied the Holocaust.

Neither the original excommunication nor its revocation were directly related to Bishop Richard Williamson's (pictured) views on the Holocaust, but the Vatican's action in welcoming the Bishop back into the fold nevertheless caused controversy around the world.

It led to the publication of a pastoral letter, the content of which is about as close to an apology as you can possibly get without actually being an apology. This was followed up with a very public and clear denunciation in L'Osservatore Romano of 'Holocaust denial and all other forms of anti-Semitism'.

In the same week, in Australia, 'revisionist' historian Frederick Toben was sentenced to three months in jail for contempt of court, after repeatedly publishing statements which denied the Holocaust and implied that Jewish people were of limited intelligence, despite federal court orders prohibiting him from doing so.

Toben was freed pending an appeal of his case, and the website of his 'Adelaide Institute' carries a banner asking 'will he be fit for work, or will he be gassed immediately upon arrival' at Adelaide's Yatala prison.

What happened to freedom of speech? Since when do we jail people in Australia for publishing an idea, even an unpopular one? Why should the church go into damage control over the eccentric political and historical views of an obscure bishop? Has the world gone mad, or is there something in those conspiracy theories after all?

Anti-Semitism is an historical phenomenon which has been well documented from the ancient world, through the Middle Ages to the present day.

Repressive laws of both church and state in the Middle Ages and the pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries reached their climax in the Nazi-led attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. The true number of those who died will never be known, but six million is considered by most historians to be an accurate estimation of the number who were murdered.

After the war, when the camps were 'liberated', the world vowed that never again would humanity stand silent while such an outrage was perpetrated. Humanity has not kept that vow, as the citizens of Sarajevo and Darfur know too well. That is a source of great shame.

But what must be