Call for pope to step down over Holocaust denier

Rome, Italy — Attacks on Pope Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust denier escalated Monday, with one theologian calling on him to step down as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Criticism following the pope's January 24 announcement has been particularly cutting in Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a crime punishable with a jail sentence.

"If the pope wants to do some good for the Church, he should leave his job," eminent liberal Catholic theologian Hermann Haering told the German daily Tageszeitung.

"That would not be a scandal, a bishop has to relinquish his position at 75 years, a cardinal loses his rights at 80 years," he said. Pope Benedict is 81.

Meanwhile, a senior Vatican official acknowledged the Vatican administration may have made "management errors" with the decision to lift excommunication against four bishops, including Richard Williamson, whose comments sparked the controversy.

"I observe the debate with great concern. There were misunderstandings and management errors in the Curia," said Cardinal Walter Kasper, who is in charge of the Vatican department that deals with Jewish relations.

"The Pope wanted to open the debate because he wanted unity inside and outside," the German cardinal told Vatican Radio.

He also noted that "these bishops are still suspended."

An international uproar followed the decision to rehabilitate Williamson, an English bishop who has dismissed as "lies" historical evidence that six million Jews were gassed by the Nazis during World War II. Jews and Catholics alike have produced widespread criticism.

"A pardon that tastes of poison," wrote Franco Garelli, an expert in religious history, in Italy's daily La Stampa Monday.

"The trouble caused by this complicated affair is evident not only outside the Church but within it," wrote the academic, who spoke of the "profound discomfort stirred up by the lifting of the excommunication in numerous Catholic circles."

Back in Germany, high-ranking Catholic officials said the pope risked losing vital support.

"There is obviously a loss of confidence" in the pope and "rehabilitating a denier is always a bad idea," the bishop of Hamburg, Werner Thissen, told the daily Hamburger Abendblatt on Monday.

The bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart, Gebhard Furst, meanwhile spoke of his "uncertainty, incomprehension and deception" in the national Bild.

In France, home to Europe's largest Jewish population, chief rabbi Gilles Bernheim denounced Williamson's remarks as "despicable" in an interview with Le Monde.

Williamson claimed that only between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews died before and during World War II, and none in the gas chambers.

French government spokesman Luc Chatel called Williamson's remarks "unacceptable, abject and intolerable."

In Austria, where Pope Benedict last week named a controversial ultra-conservative priest as auxiliary bishop in Linz, criticism also came from within the Church.

Vienna's cardinal and archbishop, Christoph Schoenborn, on Sunday lashed out at the decision to bring Williamson back into the fold, saying that "he who denies the Holocaust cannot be rehabilitated within the Church."

Belgian daily La Libre Belgique slammed the Vatican's "blindness" and "deafness," drawing links between Williamson and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

"Apparently no one can make the Iranian president and his henchman see reason" when they deny the "truth" of the Holocaust, and it is the same with the "bishop recently anointed by the highest authority of the Catholic Church," it said.

For the pope, the "blunder is extraordinary, especially given that his willingness for a dialogue with Judaism is indisputable," said French daily Liberation.