OSWIECIM, Poland (Reuters) – Four U.S. rabbis led by New York’s Avi Weiss gathered on Sunday in front of a church next to the Nazi German death camp at Birkenau in Poland arguing for its removal from a site where more than a million Jews were murdered.
World leaders will gather on Monday at Birkenau and the nearby Auschwitz camp to mark the 75th anniversary of their liberation.
“This protest for us is very much part of the commemoration. For there to be a commemoration ceremony without an expression of deep, deep outrage that the church is still here would send a message that we’re ok with this,” Weiss said.
The rabbis argue the church should not be on the site of one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the world and it violates a 1987 agreement between European cardinals and Jewish leaders that there will not be any permanent Catholic place of worship on the site of the Auschwitz or Birkenau camps.
“This (the church) in my mind is the greatest desecration of the history of the Holocaust,” Weiss said.
“Beneath this ground is a cemetery … their bloods are crying out from the ground demanding justice.”
The rabbis want the church to be moved elsewhere in Oswiecim.
Weiss was making his first visit to the church since 1995, when at the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz he was arrested for orchestrating a sit-in in to protest against what he sees as attempts to portray it as a place mainly of Christian martyrdom.
On Sunday, as mass ended, the rabbis tried to enter the church and speak with some of the parishioners, as well as with the priest. The priest turned away from them. He did not want to speak with them and slammed the door.
Some parishioners raised their voices and expressed displeasure at the rabbis’ presence but didn’t want to speak to Reuters.
Weiss led a long and ultimately successful campaign in the 1980s to secure the removal of a Carmelite convent from outside the Auschwitz grounds. It had been set up in a building just outside the wire once used as a store for poison gas.
Jews were brought from all over Europe to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be murdered during the war as part of a Nazi genocide campaign in which six million perished. Tens of thousands of Catholic Poles, including priests and resistance fighters, were tortured and killed there too.
(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Additional reporting by Alan Charlish; Edditing by Giles Elgood)