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Vatican Will Open Secret Archives of Nazi-Era Pope Accused of Ignoring Holocaust

Pope Pius XII on balcony at St Peter's Basilica in April 1955 (AP video screenshot)
Pope Pius XII on balcony at St Peter's Basilica in April 1955 (AP video screenshot)

Pope Francis announced on Monday that he will open up the Vatican archives on Pope Pius XII, a World-War-II-era pope who has been criticized for allegedly staying silent while the Nazi's executed millions of Jews.

Declaring that "the church isn't afraid of history," Francis said Pope Pius' records will be open to researchers beginning March 2, 2020. The Vatican usually waits 70 years after a pope dies to open up their archives, but the church has been under pressure to open Pius' while Holocaust survivors are still alive.

Francis defended Pius' legacy, saying it has been treated with "some prejudice and exaggeration" but also included "moments of grave difficulties, tormented decisions of human and Christian prudence, that to some could appear as reticence."

Jewish groups have been calling for full access to the archives for decades and welcomed the move.

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem supported the decision to open the archives and said it expects "researchers will be granted full access to all the documents stored in the archives."

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) also commended the decision.

"It is particularly important that experts from the leading Holocaust memorial institutes in Israel and the US objectively evaluate as best as possible the historical record of that most terrible of times, to acknowledge both the failures as well as the valiant efforts made during the period of the Shoah [Holocaust] ," said Rabbi David Rosen, the AJC's International Director of Interreligious Affairs.

The Rabbi also called Francis' decision "enormously important to Catholic-Jewish relations."

Israel's ministry of foreign affairs expressed hope that the Vatican would truly grant "free access to all relevant archives."

The opening of the archives is interpreted as part of the effort to decide if Pius should be declared a saint, a decision that is undoubtedly controversial.

His critics accuse him of not doing enough to combat the Nazi regime. Pius did not publicly speak out against the deportation of Roman Jews to Auschwitz and did not sign a declaration in December 1942 condemning Nazi Germany’s murder of European Jews.

Pius' defenders argue that some convents and other religious institutes in Italy hid Jews from the Nazis.

Many hope the opening of Pius' archives will settle the debate on his Legacy.

Monsignor Sergio Pagano, who is in charge of the Vatican Secret Archive, said on Monday that thousands of files, letters, and other material will be made available.

Pagano wrote in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano Monday that the archives "spoke, speak, and, I hope, will speak to researchers and to historians of an almost superhuman work of Christian humanism" amid mid-20th-century events "that seemed determine to annihilate the very notion of human civilization."

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