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Friday, 16 April 2010


The trial of British bishop Richard Williamson for Holocaust denial began in Regensburg on Friday in a case that has deeply embarrassed the Vatican. The high-profile proceedings opened without Williamson after his breakaway ultra-conservative Catholic fraternity ordered the cleric not to testify, his lawyer said. "Bishop Williamson would gladly have come, but the Saint Pius X Society suggested he did not - to be precise, they forbade him from coming," defence attorney Matthias Lossmann told the court in this southern German city. He was fined 12,000 euros (17,000 dollars) earlier this year for giving an interview in Germany to a Swedish broadcaster in 2009 in which he argued that only "200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps." The bishop also denied there had ever been any gas chambers. A further trial was ordered after he refused to pay. Denying that the Holocaust took place, or questioning key elements, is illegal in Germany and Austria. Williamson, 70, who now lives in London, faces a sentence ranging from a fine to a prison sentence of up to five years if convicted.

Williamson belongs to the Saint Pius X Society, a Swiss-based Catholic fraternity, which appointed him a bishop without the pope's blessing after it broke away from Rome over the Vatican II reforms introduced in 1965. Among the points rejected by the organisation was a declaration, Nostra Aetate, which ended a Church doctrine by which the Jews were held responsible for killing Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVI unleashed a deluge of criticism for reversing the excommunication of Williamson and three other bishops in the Saint Pius X Society just days after the bishop made his remarks on the Holocaust. The case prompted a rare comment on religious matters by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called on Pope Benedict to "clarify unambiguously that there can be no denial" the Nazis killed six million Jews. The pope later admitted mistakes in his handling of the case, saying he was unaware of Williamson's latest remarks and that it was "intolerable" to dispute the facts of the Holocaust.

The trial comes amid a ballooning sexual abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church, with hundreds of people coming forward in Germany and other countries around the world saying they were molested by predatory priests. Williamson has said he apologised to anyone offended by his comments but has refused to retract his assertions, saying only that he would re-examine the historical evidence. The court on Friday heard an excerpt of the interview, in which Williamson is heard telling the interviewer: "Be careful, this is against the law in Germany." The bishop was told the interview would be aired only in Sweden, Lossmann told the court, and said Williamson could not be held criminally responsible for the release of the remarks in Germany. "That will be the crux of the case here," he said. "We do not even need to discuss the fact that these remarks are unacceptable, that is completely beside the point." Lossmann added that the bishop had been surprised by a question on the Nazis' slaughter of European Jews at the end of the interview.