The Vatican is opening up secret archives relating to the periods before, during and after World War II. The archives should help scholars gain a better understanding of the actions of Pope Pius XII, who has been accused of failing to do enough to help Jews during the Holocaust.
Pope John Paul II has decided that by next year, documents concerning the Holy See's relations with Germany during the Nazi years will be made available to international scholars.
A Vatican statement said the pertinent records will be opened up in the hope of ending what it calls "unjust and ungrateful speculation" regarding the actions of Pope Pius XII during the Second World War.
The present pope has strongly defended the wartime pontiff, calling him a "great" Pope. The Vatican has always contended that Pius XII did not speak out more forcefully against the Holocaust because he was afraid of endangering Catholics and other Jews. But critics say he could have done more to stop the Nazi massacre of millions of Jews and other minority groups.
The first of 640 documents to be made available cover relations between the Vatican and Germany from 1922 to 1939 when the future Pius XII served first as Vatican ambassador to Germany and later as Vatican Secretary of State.
Another group of documents dealing with wartime prisoners, between 1939 when Pius XII was elected to head the Catholic Church and his death in 1958, will be made available in by 2005.
The Vatican statement says the documents in the Vatican's secret archives will show "the great works of charity and assistance undertaken by Pius XII with respect to the numerous prisoners and other victims of the war, of any nation, religion and race".
The decision to open up parts of the archives comes after a joint panel of Catholic and Jewish scholars examining the Vatican's wartime record suspended its research in two years ago, complaining that the Vatican was not giving it full access to documents needed to carry out its work.