Jewish groups, the press and politicians all praised German Chancellor Merkel's criticism of the rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop. Now the Vatican has called on him to distance himself from his statements.
The pope is under fire for trying to gather people like Williamson back into the church
The Vatican on Wednesday, Feb. 4, called upon Richard Williamson, the bishop who denied millions of Jews were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, to recant those statements.
But despite calls from Merkel and others for an explanation by Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Catholic Church did not mention the issue in his audience on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Merkel had taken the pontiff to task for lifting the Williamson's excommunication.
Merkel called for further clarification "that there can be no denial and there must be positive relations with Judaism."
The Vatican maintains that the rehabilitation of Williamson has nothing to do with his views on the Holocaust, which he expressed in an interview with a Swedish television station. Pope Benedict has made reconciliation with Catholic traditionalists, to whom Williamson belongs, a priority of his papacy.
But the affair has earned him massive criticism in his home country Germany, which formerly celebrated the pontiff as a hero. Merkel, on the other hand, is reaping praise for getting involved in the issue.
Merkel impresses press
The issue is proving a winner for Merkel
In an interview with the Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, General-Secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Stephan Kramer expressed "respect and recognition for the chancellor for speaking out on this difficult matter."
Merkel's intervention in the affair has also drawn support from the European press -- even in primarily Catholic countries.
"Mrs. Merkel is standing up to Ratzinger [the Pope's given name]," wrote the Spanish newspaper El Pais. "She is joining the waves of outrage that the Bavarian head of the church unleashed with his most recent decisions."
Italy's Corriere della Sera concurred.
"Mrs. Merkel has made herself a spokesperson for the majority of people in her country," the paper wrote.
And some left-leaning periodicals in non-Catholic countries took Merkel's criticism a step farther.
"One may regret that the Catholic Church has not succeeded in keeping its doctrine of Love Thy Neighbor free of reactionary appropriation," wrote Denmark's Information. "But it is also reason for optimism that the pope has made a personal contribution to driving modern-thinking people from his institution, which is, historically speaking, very compromised."
Williamson has repeatedly denied that Jews were sent to gas chambers
The head of Merkel's political rivals, the Social Democrats, has taken a similar line to the chancellor on the Williamson controversy.
"I find the rehabilitation of a bishop who denies the Holocaust unacceptable," SPD party chairman Franz Muentefering told the daily Berliner Zeitung. "It is a grave, historical mistake the church must correct as soon as possible."
But Merkel has herself come in for criticism in Catholic areas of Germany such as Bavaria, with the pope's brother is among her detractors.
"I always thought she was a reasonable woman," Georg Ratzinger told the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper. "But perhaps she's under such pressure at the moment that she voicing sentiments reason would other prevent her from saying."
Some members of the conservative Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, aren't happy either.
Bernd Posselt, a EU Parliament member from the CSU, told the dpa news agency Merkel should stop "putting herself forward as a school mistress for the pope."
Some Catholic clergymen have also taken aim at the Merkel.
In a statement, the Bishop of Eichstatt, Gregor Maria Hanke, said it was "incomprehensible and outrageous that the German Chancellor has demanded clear statements from the pope in a context that Pope Benedict has never lacked clarity."
But other Catholic clergy in Germany put the blame on the Vatican. The Archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky, has called for a review of Williamson's re-acceptance into the Catholic Church.
"My sense is that a different outcome would be reached," Sterzinsky told the Bild newspaper. "And if it is determined that mistakes were made, no matter on what level, than an apology has to be issued."