By Andrew Stern
(Reuters) - More than a hundred University of Notre Dame professors have demanded that Illinois Bishop Daniel Jenky renounce comments he made criticizing President Barack Obama's stance on religious liberty that compared him to dictators Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
"Jenky's comments demonstrate ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide and absence of judgment," said the letter addressed this week to the leadership of the renowned Catholic university in Indiana and signed by 131 professors from various fields.
The letter urged the school to distance itself from Jenky's "incendiary statement," and called for Jenky, 65, a Notre Dame graduate who has led a Catholic diocese in Peoria, Illinois, since 2002, to "renounce loudly and publicly this destructive analogy" - or resign from the university's Board of Fellows and board of trustees.
Jenky, along with other U.S. Catholic bishops and social conservatives, condemned the Obama administration's requirement that church-affiliated institutions provide insurance that covers contraception.
But his April 14 homily singled out Obama and the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate, saying "The Church will survive ... the calculated disdain of the President of the United States ... and of the current (Democratic) majority of the federal Senate."
Even after the White House sought to calm the furor by announcing last month it would not require church-run hospitals, universities and charities to pay for birth control coverage but instead shift the burden to insurers, the bishops continued to battle against the mandate.
The bishops said the mandate was part of a broader attack on religion by state and federal authorities, a position echoed by Republican presidential candidates on the campaign trail who accused the Obama administration of waging war on religious freedom.
'FORCED TO HUDDLE, HIDE'
In his homily, Jenky compared the administration's stance to anti-religious figures in history such as Hitler and Stalin who "have tried to force Christians to huddle and hide within the confines of their churches."
"Hitler and Stalin, at their better moments, would just barely tolerate some churches remaining open, but would not tolerate any competition with the state in education, social services and health care," Jenky said.
"In clear violation of our First Amendment rights, Barack Obama - with his radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda, now seems intent on following a similar path," he said.
Jenky's comments were quoted in newspapers, and his homily was reproduced on the website of the Catholic Post, the Peoria diocese's newspaper.
Critics of Jenky, including groups dedicated to the separation of church and state, seized on his remarks, contending he instructed his flock to vote against Obama in November's general election, a violation of the church's tax-exempt status.
In response to the uproar, Patricia Gibson, chancellor of the Peoria diocese, said in a statement that Jenky's comments had been taken out of context and that he was only drawing from history to illustrate his point.
"Bishop Jenky is concerned that our government is treading on one of our most dear freedoms: religious liberty ...," she wrote.
A diocese spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the Notre Dame professors' letter.
Jenky formerly served as an auxiliary bishop in the Indiana diocese that includes Notre Dame, and had previously worked for the school in administrative posts.
A school spokesman, Dennis Brown, said the letter was from a group of faculty members, not the school itself. "Beyond that, we do not comment on the personal views of Board members other than to say that they do not necessarily reflect those of the university."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)