Vatican urged to probe fascist loot

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NEW YORK — The World Jewish Congress is calling on the Vatican to open its archives for an examination of its wartime past.

The WJC issued the call Wednesday after researchers found a declassified U.S. Treasury Department document claiming that the Vatican had stored 200 million Swiss francs — worth about $500 million today — for Croatian fascists after World War II.

In addition to opening the archives, the "Vatican should establish a commission to look into their wartime past — as 16 other countries have done — in view of this incredible documentation," said Elan Steinberg, WJC's executive director.

"The pope, who has recognized Israel and condemned anti-Semitism, can exert the moral authority to overcome petty bureaucrats who are trying to keep the archives closed and who, in their reaction to the disclosure, sound like a caricature of a Swiss banker," Steinberg said.

His comments came after the Vatican flatly denied that the declassified document had any validity.

"These reports have no basis in reality," chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said in a statement issued Tuesday.

"The information, which is without any documentation, is only based on `a reliable source in Italy' which, even if it existed, remains unidentified and of dubious authority," Navarro-Valls said.

Convicted Nazis such as the "butcher of Lyon" Klaus Barbie, and SS Capt. Erich Priebke, who was just convicted of war crimes this week in Italy, were among those whose escapes reportedly were aided by the Vatican.

The document in question, dated Oct. 21, 1946, was made public on Monday by A&E Television Networks, which said producers had found it while doing research for a documentary.

In the document, U.S. Treasury official Emerson Bigelow stated that Croatian fascists spirited about 350 million Swiss francs out of Yugoslavia after the war and that the British impounded only some 150 million.

The document quoted a "reliable source in Italy" that the rest of the money was held in the Vatican "for safekeeping."

"According to rumor, a considerable portion" of the money held by the Vatican "has been sent to Spain and Argentina through the Vatican's `pipeline,'" the document said, "but it is quite possible this is merely a smokescreen to cover the fact that the treasure remains in its original repository" in the Vatican.