Pope Benedict XVI did not know that a traditionalist bishop was a Holocaust denier when he lifted his excommunication last month, the Vatican said Wednesday, calling on the bishop to retract his position.
In the firmest condemnation yet of comments by Richard Williamson denying the Holocaust, the Vatican said in a note that the bishop's remarks were ''absolutely unacceptable and firmly refuted by the Holy Father''.
''Bishop Williamson must distance himself in an unequivocal and public manner from his comments regarding the Holocaust, which were unknown by the Holy Father at the time of (Williamson's) rehabilitation,'' the note said.
Without this retraction, the bishop will not be admitted ''to the episcopal functions of the church'', the Vatican said, explaining that the rehabilitation did not mean the bishop could act as a minister within the Church.
The Vatican stressed that the pope had lifted the excommunication of Williamson and three other traditionalist bishops ''benevolently'' as a result of repeated requests by the society to which the bishops belong as a precursor to bringing the breakaway group back to the Church.
Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, began working in 1988 to reunite the traditionalist Society of St Pius X, which split with Rome over the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The pontiff's decision to rehabilitate the bishops sparked dismay among Jews last month when it transpired that Williamson had recently reiterated his belief that there were no gas chambers and that only 300,000 Jews died in the Holocaust, not six million.
After the Chief Rabbinate of Israel said it could not continue dialogue with the Vatican without a public apology from the Holy See, the German-born pope reiterated his full support for his ''Jewish brothers'' during a papal audience.
He said the Holocaust must not be denied nor diminished because ''violence committed against even one man is violence against all men''.
But some critics accused the Vatican of failing to issue a stronger condemnation of Williamson's comments.
Breaking with a personal policy of not commenting on decisions by the Catholic Church, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Tuesday that the Holy See's clarifications on the issue had been ''insufficient''.
The Vatican said Wednesday that its latest statement was aimed at ''clearing up some aspects of the matter''.
Israel's Rabbinate said last week it will reevaluate its decision to cancel a meeting on religious dialogue scheduled for March in the wake of the pontiff's comments and a letter sent by the head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper.
Williamson last week sent a letter to the Holy See apologising for ''imprudent remarks'' that had caused the pope ''unneccessary distress and problems'' but did not retract his position.
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