The Southern California Board of Rabbis declared Tuesday that it will boycott the September interfaith meeting in Los Angeles with the Pope unless he meets with world Jewish leaders and gives a satisfactory explanation for his scheduled meeting Thursday at the Vatican with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim.
Calling Waldheim "an unrepentant Nazi" for complicity in war crimes as a World War II officer, the rabbis said their participation in the multifaith meeting is conditioned "upon the positive outcome of an early meeting with the Pope."
Meanwhile, Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, who had met with local Jewish leaders to forward their concerns to Rome, issued a statement Tuesday defending Pope John Paul II's reception of Waldheim, saying the Vatican meeting does not imply moral approval.
Mahony's private meeting last Friday with more than 15 Los Angeles Jewish leaders, at his request, was "constructive" and reflected the longstanding cordiality between local Jewish and Catholic organizations, said Rabbi Moshe J. Rothblum--the newly installed president of the Board of Rabbis--of Temple Adat Ari El.
But the board's executive committee, after an hour's discussion Tuesday, joined national Jewish bodies in saying that they will not meet with the Pope during his U.S. trip Sept. 10-19 without a preliminary session with the Pope.
Two meetings on the papal visit are thus imperiled. The first, on Sept. 11 in Miami, is a planned conversation with national Jewish organizational leaders. The second, on Sept. 16, is a religious and ceremonial event at the Japanese Cultural Center in downtown Los Angeles, with equal representation from local Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu groups.
Rabbi Alfred Wolf was to greet the Pope at the Los Angeles event on behalf of the Board of Rabbis, which was in charge of distributing 100 seats to Jewish organizations. "I don't know of any Jewish group that right now still wants to meet with the Pope," said Rabbi Paul Dubin, the board's executive director.
"I have been besieged with calls," said Rabbi Abner Weiss of Beverly Hills. "There is a grass-roots dismay over this."
The outraged Jewish reaction began quickly when the Vatican announced on June 17 that the Pope would grant an audience to Waldheim, his first official trip outside Austria since he was elected president last year.
Waldheim has been accused of covering up his involvement in Nazi mistreatment of prisoners and deportations of Jews, among other things, while he was a German army officer in Balkan countries. Waldheim has denied any wrongdoing.
Noting that Waldheim now has been barred entry into the United States by the Justice Department, the Board of Rabbis said it hopes that "the Pope would provide moral leadership by standing on the side of the victims and shunning a perpetrator of Nazi atrocities."
The Vatican said Saturday that it was "surprised and profoundly grieved" by the reaction and said that Waldheim would be received as the head of state of a predominantly Catholic country.
In the Pope's defense, Mahony pointed to John Paul II's recent visits to Poland, where he said prayers for Holocaust victims at an old Nazi death camp, as evidence of the pontiff's condemnation of Nazi atrocities and to the landmark visit last year to a Rome synagogue as evidence of the Pope's "high regard for the Jewish people."