When Bishop Richard Williamson sat down last year in an oak-panelled seminary in the picturesque Bavarian village of Zaitzkoven and agreed to an interview with a Swedish journalist, he probably had little idea of the international political storm it would soon unleash.
For the previous five years, the British-born bishop had spent most of his time preaching and praying in an isolated theological college in the Argentinie countryside, a short drive from the capital, Buenos Aires.
But that afternoon he was in Germany to ordain a fresh batch of priests for the Society of St Pius X (SSPX), the radical ultra-orthodox breakaway Catholic sect he belongs to which believes the Vatican has been overrun by liberal modernisers and has turned its back on the true teachings of the Catholic Church.
Ali Fegan, the journalist, was investigating links between SSPX and far-right nationalist groups in Sweden and hoped to pin down exactly what the society's most outspoken and prominent acolyte really thought about the Holocaust. Much to Fegan's surprise, the usually media-shy Bishop Williamson obliged and offered a full on-the-record interview which has since turned him into one of the world's most controversial religious leaders.
In a black cassock with red stitching, and sporting a matching knitted cardigan, the grey-haired cleric set out in slow and carefully chosen words why he believed historians had exaggerated the true extent of the Holocaust. "I believe that the historical evidence is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler," he said. "I believe there were no gas chambers. Between two and three hundred thousand Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber."
When that interview was broadcast last month, that turned the previously little-known Bishop Williamson into an overnight international pariah and thrust the Vatican headlong into a disastrous confrontation with Jews worldwide. The 69-year-old bishop went to ground as the Vatican, which had embarrassingly just lifted an excommunication order against SSPX, ordered him to recant his views on the Holocaust and launched a frantic damage- limitation exercise to assuage outraged Jewish concerns.
When journalists tried to visit him they were told he was on a spiritual retreat and the world's most controversial bishop went silent. But yesterday morning, after a brief scuffle with a photographer at Buenos Aires airport and a long flight over the Atlantic, a bleary-eyed Bishop Williamson arrived back in the country of his birth after being ignominiously expelled from Argentina.
The Argentine government, with the largest Jewish population in Latin America, had decided that the bishop was no longer welcome and he was ordered to leave the country within 10 days. His return to Britain marks a remarkably swift fall for a figure hugely respected among far-right seminarians and is now finding himself feted by the small but vocal group of historical revisionists who believe that the true extent of the Holocaust has been exaggerated. The bishop has refused to answer questions from journalists, but has indicated he may be willing to change his views on the Holocaust after he reviews the evidence.
Waiting for him at Heathrow was Michele Renouf, a former socialite turned documentary film-maker who has regularly come to the aid of those accused of denying the Holocaust. Last year, she put together a legal team for the Australian academic Frederick Toben when he was arrested at Heathrow at the request of police in Germany where Holocaust denial is a crime. Ms Renouf once described Judaism as a "repugnant and hate-filled religion" and supported the British historian David Irving, who was briefly jailed in Austria three years ago for similar crimes, and who has been in regular email contact with Bishop Williamson in the past few weeks.
The former beauty queen said she wanted to represent and support Bishop Williamson in getting his views across. Drawing on religious metaphors, she said: "The Holocaust has become a religion and to deny its central tenets and saints is blasphemy."
Born to an Anglican vicar in 1940, Bishop Williamson was educated at Winchester College and Cambridge University then worked in Africa as a missionary. He converted to Catholicism in 1971 and joined the ultra-conservative SSPX. Created by the firebrand French cleric Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, SSPX was a direct response by traditionalists to the Second Vatican Council, the landmark meeting of bishops in the mid-1960s which abandoned the Latin Mass and modernised the Catholic Church.
The society initially operated with the tacit approval of the Vatican but in 1988, Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated with four bishops he had ordained against the Vatican's will, one of whom was Williamson.
Over the years, the bishop adopted an increasingly radical political rhetoric, claiming that Jews are fighting for world domination "to prepare the anti-Christ's throne in Jerusalem", that the Twin Towers were brought down by the American government to justify the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and that Freemasons are conspiring against Catholics.
For the Vatican, the presence of Bishop Williamson in Britain is a major embarrassment. Two weeks after the Swedish interview was broadcast, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication order on SSPX. The rehabilitation was supposed to signal Benedict's desire to extend a welcoming hand to ultra-traditionalists but it translated into the de facto acceptance of a man who many believe holds deeply anti-Semitic views.
Before Archbishop Lefebvre died in 1991, he encouraged the French to vote for the far-right Front National party and a SSPX booklet, by Fr Franz Schmidberger, states that Jews and Muslims are "destroying Europe's national identity" and "threatening Christian society".
Bishop Richard Williamson: His views
* On the Holocaust: "I believe that the historical evidence is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. I believe there were no gas chambers."
* On the belief that 9/11 was committed by the US government: "The police state took a great leap forward with 9/11, that's for certain, and I hope none of you believe that 9/11 was what it was presented to be."
* On women: "A woman can do a good imitation of handling ideas, but then she will not be thinking properly as a woman. Did this lawyeress check her hairdo before coming into court? If she did, she is a distracted lawyer. If she did not, she is one distorted woman."
* On the failure of "white men" to remain true to Catholicism: "If the white men still refuse to convert, let us pray for some great conversions among Jews, Muslims and blacks so that they may take over where the whites have left off, and may continue to show us the way to Heaven."
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