BY TRACY-JO SMITH
THE VATICAN released new evidence this week casting fresh light on accusations that Pope Pius XII did nothing to protect Jews under German rule from Nazi persecution.
In an unprecedented move, the Vatican threw open hitherto secret diplomatic archives in an effort to counter historians who have accused Pius XII of failing to oppose the Nazi's destruction of Europe's Jews during the Second World War.
Since last Saturday, researchers and the general public have had access to the Vatican archives related to the Holy See and Germany in the 20s and 30s. Archives covering the war years cannot be released until 2005 Of key importance is a letter from Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, then Vatican secretary of state, who gave precise instructions to the apostolic nuncio in Berlin, Mgr Cesare Orsenigo, to warn the National Socialist government not to persecute the Jews. In 1939, Pacelli became Pope Pius XII.
Written in the diplomatic language of the time, the letter reads: "Important Israeli personalities have appealed to the Holy Father to ask for his intervention against the danger of anti-Semitic excesses in Germany. Given that it is a part of the traditions of the Holy See to carry out its mission of universal peace and charity toward all men, regardless of the social or religious condition to which they belong, by offering, if necessary, its charitable offices, the Holy Father asks your Excellency to see if, and how, it is possible to be involved in the desired way."
The Vatican said the reference to "important Israeli personalities" reflected the good relations that the Church had with Jewish officials and the Church's desire to respond to their request.
Some Jewish scholars praised the opening of the archives, performed at the express wish of Pope John Paul II. But Jewish groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, based in Los Angeles, California, said the documents confirmed that Pius XII was silent in the face of the Holocaust.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Centre, said "I believe that if John Paul II had been pope during the Holocaust, the events never would have occurred. He would never have remained silent, because he has proven to be a person of conscience."
Fr Peter Gumpel, the German promoter of Pius XII's cause for sainthood, wrote in 1999, that "no one of
whatever station or organisation did as much to help the Jews as did Pius XII".
Also available to researchers are wartime archives from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican watchdog of Church orthodoxy. These include documents on the Vatican's views on racism, fascism, Nazism, and eugenics, among other issues — files scholars say could be enormously important in understanding the intellectual climate of Europe that allowed Nazism to thrive.
Later this year, the Vatican is expected to publish on CDRom a general inventory of its dossier on prisoners of war dating from 1939-1947, a group of more than 3.5 million prisoners from across Europe.
The Vatican set up offices during war to help relatives trace family members.
The Vatican's chief archivist, Fr Sergio Pagano, said: "This is a small contribution that the Vatican archives wants to give to study, and also [to show] the enormous charity undertaken by Pius XII."
In 1999, the Vatican announced the formation of a panel of Jewish and Catholic experts to review published material from its archives to try to shed light on Pius's actions.