German Chancellor Angela Merkel has developed the reputation for being one who prefers to wait and reflect before jumping into political and public debates. On issue after issue, Merkel has either arrived late to the discussion, or skipped it altogether.
Thus it was a surprise on Tuesday when she adopted an unexpectedly sharp tone in blasting the Vatican for not taking a clear enough position against Holocaust denial. And she has received widespread praise from Jewish groups both within Germany and abroad for doing so.
"(We have) deep respect and appreciation for the chancellor for the fact that she spoke out on this difficult matter," Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, told the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung. It shows "the kind of prudence and feeling of responsibility she has," he said.
Kramer's remarks were echoed by Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants. "When the German chancellor admonishes a German-born pope, it is an extraordinary message," Steinberg wrote in an e-mail to the Associated Press. "Together with the expressions of outrage emanating from German and Austrian bishops, these developments have ironically strengthened relations between Germany and the world Jewish community."
The outrage from Germany and elsewhere comes in response to Pope Benedict XVI's Jan. 24 decision to revoke the excommunication of four bishops belonging to the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). Particularly embarrassing for the Vatican is the fact that one of those rehabilitated, Bishop Richard Williamson, told Swedish television just days before the pope's decision that there had been no gas chambers in German concentration camps during World War II and that "only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews" died in the camps, instead of the 6 million figure widely accepted by historians.
Shortly after the scandal hit global headlines, Benedict condemned Holocaust denial during his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square and declared his solidarity with Jews. Still, Merkel said that more is needed. "In my opinion, this isn't just an issue affecting the Christian, Catholic and Jewish communities in Germany," Merkel said on Tuesday. Rather, it is important that the pope clarify "that Holocaust denial cannot be accepted and that, in general, there must be a positive association with Judaism as a whole." She went on to say: "I do not believe that sufficient clarification has been made."
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi rejected Merkel's criticism on Tuesday evening, saying that Pope Benedict XVI had been clear enough in distancing himself from Holocaust denial. Still, this week has seen a number of German bishops questioning the pope's decision -- and Germans on the whole turning their back on a man who was celebrated in Germany when he became pope in 2005. Back then, the tabloid Bild trumpeted Wir Sind Papst! ("We're Pope!") on its front page. This week, it was the left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung which captured the public mood with a headline of its own, reading Wir Sind Peinlich ("We're Embarrassing").
Furthermore, it has become increasingly clear this week that a simple apology is hardly going to be sufficient when it comes to damage control. Berlin Archbishop Georg Sterzinsky is among the many church leaders in Germany and elsewhere demanding that the pope revisit his decision -- one which the pope claimed was aimed at healing a rift within the church. "I think he needs to announce immediately that the decision will be reviewed," Sterzinsky told Deutsche Welle TV. "He cannot leave the impression that the decision will remain as is."
Still, many are doing what they can to protect the pope from the swirling controversy. Many say that Benedict was not aware of Williamson's position on the Holocaust and that his decision represents a failure of his advisors. According to a story in Wednesday's Stockholm daily Svenska Dagbladet, some in the Vatican are even accusing the Swedish television station responsible for the Williamson interview of being part of a conspiracy to damage the pope. The station denies the accusations.