A row has erupted over whether Pope Pius XII failed to save Italian Jews from being deported to death camps by the Nazis during World War II.
For decades, critics have accused Pius of being pro-German and of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, while his defenders have argued that he did his best to secretly help save Jews under extremely difficult circumstances.
In a bid to resolve the debate, the Vatican on Monday opened its archives relating to Pius's 1939-1958 papacy to scholars, although experts said that it would take years to scrutinise the two million documents.
It came as a senior Vatican figure claimed the archive would demonstrate that Pius did everything in his power to save Jews from the Nazis.
Johan Ickx, an archivist from the Holy See's Secretariat of State, said documents showed that Vatican officials provided Jews with false documents to help them evade Nazi persecution and that the Vatican hid around 4,000 Jews in its properties in Rome.
But that elicited an angry rebuttal from some Jewish leaders, who accused the pope of saying nothing when 1,022 Jews were rounded up in Rome in October 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. Just 16 of them survived the war.
"It can be clearly seen that there was no desire to stop the train of October 16 and that the help was targeted to protect people who'd been baptised," said Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome. He said the Vatican's eagerness to proclaim Pius as a saviour of Jews was "highly suspicious".
Riccardo Pacifici, a former president of the Jewish community of Rome, added: "After telling us that it will take years of study, the Vatican seems to be suddenly presenting evidence on the first day of the archives being opened, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat." (© Daily Telegraph, London)