Germany is considering issuing an arrest warrant for Bishop Richard Williamson over his controversial claim that no Jews died in the gas chambers during the Second World War.
The 69-year-old British-born bishop made the comments during an interview with Swedish television last year at a seminary for the ultra-orthodox Society of Saint Pius X in the Bavarian village of Zaitzkoven, near Munich.
Under German law denial of the Holocaust is illegal and an investigation was launched by prosecutors after the interview was broadcast last month.
Germany’s Justice Minister, Brigitte Zypries, confirmed yesterday that officials were considering issuing a European Union-wide arrest warrant for Dr Williamson, who flew into Britain earlier this week after being expelled from the Argentine seminary where he had been living for much of the past five years.
Mrs Zypries said that if an arrest warrant is issued, Britain would be obligated to arrest the renegade cleric and extradite him to Germany under a European set of guidelines introduced last year to toughen up anti-racism and hate crime laws. Although Britain has no specific laws against denying genocides, in Germany Holocaust denial is punishable with up to three years in prison and because the comments were made in Germany, Dr Williamson may be liable for prosecution.
The news of the arrest warrant came as the controversial bishop’s attempted rehabilitation into the Catholic Church took a tumble when the Vatican rejected an apology he made earlier this week. After weeks of refusing an order from Rome to repent his Holocaust denial views “in an absolutely unequivocal and public way”, he made a carefully worded apology on Thursday evening on the SSPX website.
In the statement, the bishop said his views on the Holocaust were that of a “non-historian … formed 20 years ago on the basis of evidence then available, and rarely expressed in public since”.
He added: “To all souls that took honest scandal from what I said, before God I apologise.”
The Vatican’s chief spokesperson, Father Frederico Lombardi, said Dr Williamson’s apology “does not seem to respect the conditions” for his re-admission to the church.
Jewish and Holocaust-remembrance groups also rejected the apology saying Dr Williamson had failed to fully renounce his belief that the Holocaust has been exaggerated by historians. Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said: “The one thing he doesn’t say, and the main thing, is that the Holocaust occurred … You want to make an apology, you have to affirm the Holocaust.”
Karen Pollack, the chief executive of The Holocaust Educational Trust, also criticised the apology: “You don’t need to be a historian to recognise one of the most defining episodes of the 20th century, where millions of Jews and others were brutally murdered by the Nazis. Williamson may have acknowledged the offence he has caused but the fact remains that he denied the Holocaust â€“ even questioning the existence of gas chambers only a month ago. Holocaust denial is anti-Semitism under whatever guise.”
Although the bishop belongs to a breakway Catholic sect that is not in full communion with the Catholic Church, the Vatican has been deeply embarrassed by Williamson’s views because it lifted an excommunication order on the SSPX just days after his Holocaust denial interview was broadcast.