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Pontiff Honors Union Leaders Killed by Nazis

May 03, 1987|From Times Wire Services and Associated Press

GELSENKIRCHEN, West Germany — Pope John Paul II paid tribute Saturday to three labor union leaders who died at the hands of the Nazis after being accused of involvement in a failed attempt to kill Adolf Hitler.

It was the third consecutive day that the pontiff spoke out in West Germany against Nazi World War II atrocities and praised Roman Catholics who defied Hitler's Third Reich. At the same time church officials continued their efforts to refute allegations that the church did not do enough to protect Jews from Nazi persecution.

The Pope also addressed social issues on a swing Saturday through the economically depressed Ruhr industrial area, calling some unemployment "a social scandal," demanding protection for the environment and asking for step-by-step nuclear disarmament.

At an outdoor Mass in Gelsenkirchen, 55 miles northeast of Bonn, the pontiff praised Nikolaus Gross, Gottfried Koenzgen and Bernhard Letterhaus. All three were prominent Roman Catholics and union leaders from the Ruhr who were convicted of involvement in the 1944 bomb attack on Hitler's Wolf's Lair bunker in East Prussia. Hitler was slightly wounded in the assassination attempt.

Two Were Executed

Gross and Letterhaus were executed. Koenzgen was sent to Mauthausen concentration camp, where he died of malnutrition.

The notorious People's Court in Berlin, which sentenced to death thousands of Hitler's foes, convicted all three of helping plot the attack carried out by top-ranking army officers dissatisfied with Hitler's leadership.

"They sacrificed their lives for their faith and for their church," the pontiff said in his homily, speaking in German at a Mass in a sports stadium jammed with 80,000 people.

"Numerous priests and laymen have, together with them, been staunch witnesses of the faith in opposition to a godless, inhumane dictatorship."

Since his arrival Thursday for a five-day visit to West Germany, the pontiff has repeatedly condemned the horrors of Hitler's rule and strongly defended the conduct of German Catholic bishops and the Vatican during the Third Reich.

Judgment Not Accepted

"The Pope does not accept the judgment that the Catholic Church as a whole was guilty" of neglecting Jews fleeing Nazi persecution, or of failing to speak out vigorously against Nazi atrocities, a senior Vatican official told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity, the agency reported.

Since the end of World War II, some critics have charged that the church in general, and Pope Pius XII in particular, were indifferent to the plight of the Jews under Hitler. The Vatican has rejected the charges and put forward documented cases of church protection being accorded to Jews in distress.

Despite the Vatican denials, the church's role during the war has remained a subject of controversy.

Father Hans Kueng, a dissident West German Catholic theologian, said Wednesday that "not one bishop spoke out openly for the Jews at the time (of the Third Reich)."

The Vatican official said "perhaps some individual bishops" might have failed to act decisively. "But it was not true on a religious level or on a historical level," he said.

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