Merkel challenges Vatican over Holocaust denial

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Bavarian-born Pope Benedict to make clear he did not tolerate any denial of the Holocaust in unusually strong words on Tuesday which drew a quick, sharp response from the Vatican.

It is highly unusual for the Vatican to engage in a tit for tat with heads of government over papal comments.

Merkel, who said she did not usually comment on internal church matters, was responding to the outcry over the pope’s rehabilitation of four traditional Catholic bishops, including one who denies the extent of the Holocaust.

“But it is different if we are talking about fundamental questions,” said Merkel, daughter of a Protestant pastor, at a news conference with the Kazakh president.

“It is a fundamental question if, through a decision by the Vatican, the impression arises that the Holocaust can be denied,” she said.

“This is about the pope and the Vatican making very clear that there can be no (Holocaust) denial and that there must be positive relations with Judaism,” said Merkel.

She said the Vatican had not yet given such clarifications.

The pope has caused a furor with his lifting of the excommunications, including that of Briton Richard Williamson who denies there were gas chambers and says no more than 300,000 Jews perished in concentration camps.

An estimated six million European Jews were killed by the Nazis.

The Vatican, however, quickly hit back at Merkel, saying the pope’s position on the Holocaust and Holocaust denial “could not be any clearer.”

In a statement, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the pope’s thoughts on the Holocaust had been expressed “very clearly” in his speech at the Cologne synagogue in August 2005, at Auschwitz in 2006, and at his general audience last week, where his words were “unequivocal.”

“The condemnation of declarations which deny the Holocaust could not have been any clearer,” Lombardi said.

Last week Germany’s Central Council of Jews broke off ties with the Catholic Church to protest against the pope’s move.

(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome)

Reporting by Andreas Moeser, writing by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Richard Balmforth