VATICAN CITY (RNS) Pope John Paul II has directed the Vatican to give historians access to its archives on relations with Germany during the 17 years leading up to World War II and the Holocaust, the Vatican said Friday (Feb. 15).

Announcing the surprise move, officials of the archives said the pope had made an "exceptional" gesture to try to "put an end to unjust and ungrateful speculation" that Pope Pius XII had failed to try to protect Jews from Nazi persecution.

The 640 files, which will be made available to scholars at the beginning of 2003, deal with the papacy of Pius XI, from 1922 to 1938, but also will provide information on his successor. Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, served as the Vatican's envoy to Germany and secretary of state during the period.

The Revs. Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Secret Vatican Archives, and Marcel Chappin, head of the Historical Archives of the Secretariat of State, said they will also publish information on prisoners of war between 1939 and 1945.

The documents, they said, "will make historians aware of the great work of charity and assistance carried out by Pius XII regarding the numerous prisoners and other victims of the war, of whatever nation, religion and race."

In an effort to end the controversy over Pius XII's wartime role and pave the way for his eventual beatification, the Vatican in November 1999 invited six Catholic and Jewish historians to examine its archives up to 1922 and 11 volumes of published documents on the church's role during World War II.

But the International Catholic Jewish Historical Commission suspended its work in acrimony last July 23, with Jewish members attacking the Vatican for refusing them access to later archives. The Vatican said the documents cannot be made public until they have been catalogued and reorganized.

Friday's announcement said that work on the complete archives dealing with Pius XI's papacy "is in an advanced phase" and should be completed and made available to historians in three years. The Vatican normally opens its archives on an entire papacy rather than releasing selected documents.

"It is the Holy Father's intention, once the complete Vatican archives for the pontificate of Pius XI are opened, to make accessible with priority the Vatican-German documentary sources for the pontificate of Pius XII," the archivists said. Pius XII was pope from 1939 to 1958.

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