Talk of witches at Vatican Inquisition conference

Talk of trials, burned witches and forbidden books echoed in the Vatican yesterday as Pope John Paul asked forgiveness for the Inquisition, in which the Church tortured and killed people branded as heretics.

The Pope made his request in a letter read out at a news conference on a new book on the Inquisition.

He repeated a phrase from a 2000 document in which he first asked pardon "for errors committed in the service of truth through use of methods that had nothing to do with the Gospel".

That was shorthand for torture, summary trials, forced conversions and burnings at the stake.

But in the letter, the Pope went further, saying the request for forgiveness was for "both the dramas connected to the Inquisition as well as for the wounds to the (collective) memory that followed".

Pope Gregory IX created the Inquisition in 1233 to curb heresy, but Church officials soon began to count on civil authorities to fine, imprison, torture and kill heretics. It reached a peak in the 16th century to counter the Reformation.

The 800-page volume issued yesterday was based on speeches at a Vatican-sponsored academic symposium six years ago.

But the talk at the news conference was decidedly more, well, spell-binding.

A chart showed that Germany was where more male and female "witches" were killed by civilian tribunals around the start of the 15th century.

Some 25,000 people of the then population of 16 million, were killed. But the percentage record went to Lichtenstein, where 300 people, or some 10 per cent of the tiny population of 3,000, were killed for convictions of witchcraft. Professor Agostino Borromeo, the book's editor, said fewer people were actually killed by the Inquisition than commonly believed.

He said that only about 1.8 per cent of those investigated by the Spanish Inquisition were killed. Mannequins were burned to represent those tried in absentia and condemned to death.

Those heretics and witches who repented at the last minute were first strangled to death and their bodies burned. "It was considered a less agonising way to die," he said.

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