WARSAW, Poland — A Polish diocese that has the former Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on its territory has dismissed new Jewish demands for the removal of a nearby Catholic church.
“This church isn’t on the territory of the camp, and the building didn’t belong to the camp — there’s, therefore, no basis for removing it,” said Father Mateusz Kierczak, communications director of the Bielsko-Zywiec Diocese.
The priest was responding to late-January demands for the closure of the Virgin Mary, Queen of Poland Church. Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York said it violated a 1987 international Catholic-Jewish accord.
In a Jan. 22 article in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, ahead of 75th anniversary commemorations of the camp’s liberation, Rabbi Weiss said the Virgin Mary church was housed in the former headquarters of Birkenau’s Nazi commandant, where Jewish inmates were tortured and raped, and represented “the greatest violation of Holocaust memory.”
The rabbi, founder of the Hebrew Institute in Riverdale, New York and a longtime Jewish activist, said the church violated a 1987 agreement between European cardinals and Jewish leaders that there would be “no permanent Catholic place of worship” on the Auschwitz-Birkenau site, as well as a 1972 UNESCO convention on protection of world culture.
However, Bartosz Bartyzel, spokesman for the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, told Catholic News Service Jan. 31 that the building housing the Virgin Mary church was outside the camp area.
He added that it had not been fully constructed at the camp’s 1945 liberation and had not, therefore, served as the commandant’s headquarters.
Father Kierczak told CNS: “We can’t deal with something that’s being presented emotionally. … This affair has lasted for so many years, and we don’t wish to engage in another media squabble. It would serve no purpose for us to reply every time rabbis staged some protest.”
Besides Jewish inmates, who comprised 90 percent of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s 1.1 million victims, up to 75,000 mostly Catholic Poles were also killed by German occupiers in Auschwitz-Birkenau’s gas chambers and execution sites, as well as tens of thousands of Russian POWs, Roma and other prisoners.
Jewish groups have long protested the placing of Christian symbols at the camp, where a Catholic Carmelite convent was closed by church leaders in 1993, and dozens of crosses were removed in 1998 after international complaints.
The Jerusalem Post reported police barred Rabbi Weiss and others from entering the church compound when they staged a Jan. 27 protest with banners and songs.
A regional police spokesman, Sebastian Glen, told Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza daily the protesters had not received permission to gather “in the protected zone of a memorial monument.”