LA REJA, Argentina (Reuters) - Argentina has given a Roman Catholic bishop 10 days to leave the country or be expelled after he caused an international uproar by denying the extent of the Holocaust, the government said on Thursday.
Bishop Richard Williamson, an ultra-traditionalist who headed a seminary near Buenos Aires until earlier this month, has said he believes there were no gas chambers and that no more than 300,000 Jews died in Germany’s Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million figure that is widely accepted.
The Vatican ordered him to retract his comments and the British-born Williamson responded that needed more time to review the evidence.
“The interior minister ... orders Richard Nelson Williamson to leave the country within 10 days or be expelled,” Argentina’s government said in a statement.
Williamson’s views were anti-Semitic and “deeply offended Argentine society,” the government said. Argentina is home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities outside of Israel.
At the seminary outside Buenos Aires, in the rural town of La Reja, two clergymen told Reuters that Williamson had already left the sprawling, tree-lined compound.
“It’s very sad but there you have it,” said a bespectacled, young Frenchman who identified himself as Juan de Dios, or Juan of God.
Neither he nor priest Alvaro Calderon was willing to say if Williamson had left for good.
Pope Benedict angered Jewish leaders and many Catholics last month when he lifted excommunications on Williamson and three other traditionalists to try to heal a 20-year-old schism within the Church that began in 1988 when they were ordained without Vatican permission.
Williamson, who belongs to the ultra-traditional Society of Saint Pius X, was removed earlier this month as head of the seminary in La Reja.
World Jewish organizations and German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the pope for rehabilitating Williamson. The pope, who is German-born, has tried to heal wounds by meeting Jewish leaders and ordering Williamson to recant his views.
Holocaust denial is a crime in Germany and state prosecutors in the southern city of Regensburg are investigating Williamson for incitement.
German neo-Nazi websites and blogs have published pieces supporting Williamson’s stand.
Argentine Jewish groups applauded the government’s decision. Aldo Donzis, head of the Delegation of Argentine Israelite Associations, said denying the Holocaust was “unacceptable.”
Rabbi Daniel Goldman, a child of Holocaust survivors who sought government action against Williamson, told the Jewish News Agency that “actions such as these clearly show that our people and our leadership refuse to live alongside a lie.”
A leader of Germany’s Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, said on Sunday it was “almost ridiculous” that Williamson has said he needs time to review evidence about whether the Holocaust took place.
Additional reporting by Hilary Burke; Editing by Frances Kerry and Kieran Murray