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In an attempt to improve the controversial public image of Pope Pius XII, the Vatican has released new documents said to back up an old claim that Hitler ordered the kidnapping of the wartime pontiff.
Pope Pius XII has been accused of being pro-German during WWII
The Italian Conference of Roman Catholic bishops published details of the Nazi plan in its newspaper Avvenire over the weekend. It said Adolph Hitler gave a direct order to SS General Karl Friedrich Otto Wolff to bring Pius to Germany, but the officer disobeyed and even warned the Vatican of the impending danger.
"I received the order to kidnap Pius personally from Hitler," the paper quoted Wolff as saying in testimony he gave to the Church in 1972 before he died in Germany. Avvenire said the plot to nab the Pope was called Operation Rabat and was allegedly put into action to punish the Catholic Church for hiding thousands of Jews in cloisters during World War II.
The report said once abducted, Pius was to be kept in a palace in Baden-Württemberg in southwestern Germany in order to help Hitler reduce the influence of Christianity so he could push the "universal religion" of Nazism. The plans allegedly also covered the possible contingency of Pius' "elimination" if necessary.
The road to sainthood?
German SS soliders round up a group of Jews, including a small children, in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.
The latest revelations are likely to be seen by some observers as the stepped up efforts of Church officials eager to further the pontiff's road to sainthood. Pope Pius XII, who headed the Church from 1939 to 1958, has long been criticized as remaining silent while Jews were persecuted by the Nazis across Europe.
Catholic officials have long contended that the Church would have risked Nazi retribution if Pius had spoken out against Jewish persecution or if he had excommunicated high-ranking Nazis. But many historians argue the Pope was pro-German and that he intentionally stood by as the Holocaust took place.
Some chalk up Pius' closeness to the Third Reich due to his tenure as the Vatican's ambassador to Berlin, known as he was then as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. However, Avvenire called Pacelli a "skilled diplomat" with a strong aversion to Nazism who managed to become pontiff despite heavy opposition from Germany.
Jewish groups have long been critical of the Catholic Church leadership during World War II and many are opposed to making Pius a saint. But the Vatican has not been deterred and the process will continue in March when many of the Church's documents of his time as Pope are examined by a select group of historians.