Yad Vashem has welcomed claims by a Jewish friend of Pope Francis that the head of the Catholic Church will open the secret Vatican archives in an effort to shed new light on the wartime activities of his predecessor Pope Pius XIII.

Israel’s Holocaust museum and other educational organisations have long called on the Vatican to open the archives of a figure that has already cleared two stages towards sainthood but that some suggest failed to do enough to help Jews during the Shoah.

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“This is an opportunity to clarify the role of the Vatican vis-à-vis the Nazis and the Jews of Europe at their darkest hour.”

While still serving as the cardinal of Buenos Aires, the head of the Catholic Church had made clear in a book, On Heaven and Earth, his belief that the archives should be opened to “let it be seen if they could have done something [to help] and until what point they could have helped”.

And this week, his co-author and friend, Rabbi Abraham Skorka, said he believes the Pope Francis will use his new role to make that happen. “What we said to each other was between us, but I believe that, yes, he will open the archives…. The issue is a very sensitive one and we must continue analyzing it,” he is quoted as saying.

The issue of Pius’s wartime record has long been a thorny one in Catholic-Jewish relations which have generally improved over recent decades.

The wartime pope has faced criticism for not publically condemning the Nazis but others, including Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI, claim he worked behind the scenes to encourage Catholic institutions to harbour Jews.

In 2008, the last pontiff said his predecessor wherever possible “spared no effort” in intervening on he behalf of Jews, helping “secretly and silently…only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews.”

Welcoming the Argentinian rabbi’s words this week, Yad Vashem said the opening would “enable researchers to get a clearer picture of the role of Pope Pius XII and the Vatican during that period”. A statement also pointed out that Benedict had also previously supported the opening, suggesting about three years ago that this would likely happen within six years.

Henry Grunwald, chair of the National Holocaust Centre in Nottingham, said:  “Pope Francis appears to be taking a refreshing approach to the secrecy on what Pope Pius did or didn’t do in the second World War. This is an opportunity to clarify the role of the Vatican vis-à-vis the Nazis and the Jews of Europe at their darkest hour.”

Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs at the AJC, said this week’s developments would be “good news” if Rabbi Skorka’s words are formally endorsed by the pontiff. But he added: “While the Secret Archives from the Second World War should be openly to scholarly review, there is little or chance it will change attitudes in the Jewish and Catholic worlds which view a Pope very differently.

“We are divided by hypothetical questions to which we give our subjective answers – why did Pope Pius Xii not do what he could have done and if he had of done those things, what impact it made have had.”

Pope Pius was made venerable five years ago, moving him to within two stages of sainthood. Pope Francis – who is set to travel to Israel in May – wrote last year that the Catholic Church holds “the Jewish people in special regard” and expressed regret for persecution suffered at the hands of Christians.