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Pius XII 'set up escape network for Jews'

Wartime pope 'backed channel', ex-Fascist cleric says

14 January, 15:27
Pius XII 'set up escape network for Jews' (ANSA) - Vatican City, January 14 - Pope Pius XII created a secret network to help Jews escape the Nazis, a former Fascist chaplain told a Catholic news agency Thursday.

The latest and strongest claim in defence of the controversial WWII pope came three days before a visit to Rome's Synagogue by Pope Benedict XVI that had appeared in doubt when the Vatican put Pius, accused by many Jews of not speaking out against the Holocaust, two steps from sainthood last month.

In an exclusive interview with h20news, (, Father Giancarlo Centioni, 97, a former Rome chaplain for Mussolin's blackshirts, said the pope was behind the creation of the German underground network for getting Jews to safety, acting under the cover of the well-known Catholic emigrant service Sankt Raphael's Verein (St Raphael'Association). Centioni said the head of the secret version of Raphael's Verein in Germany was the famous anti-Nazi priest and theologian Father Josef Kentenich, founder of the worldwide Shoenstatt movement to get lay people more involved in church work.

Kentenich was deported to Dachau for his outspoken opposition to Hitler but he managed to survive the war.

He was also a leading member of an Italian-founded Catholic missionary order, the Pallotines.

Centioni told h20news that he was the last surviving member of the underground network that was set up by German priests with Pius's support.

"I was living in the Pallotines' headquarters, where my German colleagues invited me to take part. Since I was a Fascist chaplain, it was easier to help the Jews".

According to Centioni, a number of priests came from Hamburg to set up the back channel for Raphael's Verein to give Jews fleeing the Nazis money and passports to escape deportation. Centioni said the operational head of the network was a German priest living in Rome, Father Anton Weber, who he said had "direct contact" with Pius XII.

During his own involvement, Centioni said he helped a Jew who "turned out to be a Russian spy," an episode which forced the Fascist priest to flee the city. He said the association acted before the Germans took over Italy after Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, and continued after the war.

The open role of the official Raphael's Verein in helping Catholics to emigrate, starting in the late 19th century and consolidated during the First World War, has been well documented by historians.


Centioni's interview added to a growing body of evidence the Vatican has been building to support their argument that Pius worked behind the scenes to help Jews while not denouncing the Holocaust for fear of bringing down fiercer reprisals.

In March, for example, Father Peter Gumpel, the so-called 'postulator' of Pius's cause for beatification, told Vatican radio that a document uncovered by nuns in the Rome monastery of Santissimi Quattro Coronati urged that whoever was being ''persecuted'' be given hospitality.

The document, dated November 1943, lists 24 people who were given hospitality in the monastery of cloistered nuns in keeping ''with the wishes of the Holy Father''.

Gumpel said the document - together with a similar one sent to then bishop of Assisi, Msgr Nicolini - proves beyond doubt that Pius did all he could to help Jews during the Nazi occupation of Italy.

The accusations by critics that he did nothing to prevent the infamous round-up of some 2,000 Jews in the Rome Ghetto on October 16, 1943 is ''an absolute falsehood,'' Gumpel said.


Benedict's visit to the Rome Synagogue Sunday will start with a homage at a plaque remembering the deportation of more than 1,000 Jews from the Roman Ghetto in October 1943.

Benedict, only the second pope in history to enter the Rome Synagogue, will be greeted by Rome and Italian Jewish leaders including Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, who said Wednesday he wanted to discuss Pius with Benedict "in some way".

Pius pope was recognized as 'venerable' in mid-December, the second of four stages in the canonization process.

The visit has been scheduled to take place on Catholic-Jewish Dialogue Day, established by John Paul II in 1990, four years after he became the first pope to enter a Jewish temple.

Benedict has worked hard to ease tensions between Jews and Catholics since his election in 2005, widely condemning Holocaust denial.

In May 2009, he prayed at Israel's Yad Vashem monument commemorating the Holocaust.

However, he did not enter the adjacent museum where a caption accuses Pius XII of not doing enough to save the Jews, and Jewish-Catholic tensions have flared up more than once since Benedict took office, especially over a prayer asking Jews to convert and the rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier, Bishop Richard Williamson.

The former chief rabbi who greeted John Paul in told ANSA Thursday that "mistakes have been made" since then "but dialogue continues".

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