Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pope Pius XII Beatification

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - – Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday moved controversial wartime pontiff Pius XII closer to sainthood by declaring him "venerable", bestowing the same honour on beloved predecessor John Paul II.

The beatification process of Pius XII has been a source of tension with Jewish groups due to the view among many historians that he remained passive while Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews.

The decree was unexpected on a day when Benedict also paved the way for the beatification of John Paul II's Polish compatriot Jerzy Popieluszko, the "Solidarity chaplain" who was murdered by Poland's secret service in 1984.

Announcing the three milestones simultaneously reflects a damage control strategy by the Vatican since Pius XII's progress towards sainthood is "sure to create problems with Jews," said Vatican expert John Allen.

"There is a kind of strategy of taking the sting out of it by bundling it with a pope who is very popular like John Paul II," he told AFP.

The move came as no surprise, since Benedict -- who was himself at the centre of a controversy over his past membership of the Hitler Youth -- "has publicly defended Pius XII at least three times," Allen added.

The Vatican has argued that Pius XII, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, saved many Jews by having them hidden in religious institutions in Rome and abroad and that his silence was born out of a wish to avoid aggravating their situation.

Meanwhile, John Paul II's sainthood dossier has been criticised as a "fast-track" campaign to answer the prayers of millions who adored the Polish pope, who headed the Roman Catholic Church for nearly three decades.

Benedict launched the lengthy process -- which can take decades if not centuries -- just two months after the death in 2005 of John Paul II, whose funeral was marked by calls of "Santo Subito" (Saint Now).

The final stage for beatification is providing evidence of a miracle, usually a medical cure with no scientific explanation which is reviewed by several commissions.

In John Paul II's case, the miracle under consideration -- and subject to another papal decree -- involves a French nun who was cured of Parkinson's disease in 2005.

Vatican watchers expect Benedict to approve the beatification, which could be celebrated next year, either on the April 2 anniversary of John Paul II's death or in October on the anniversary of the start of his papacy in 1978.

Popieluszko's beatification dossier does not require evidence of a miracle because he is considered a martyr.

Thieves steal infamous Auschwitz death camp sign

Thieves steal infamous Auschwitz death camp sign

WARSAW (AFP) - – Thieves on Friday stole the infamous Nazi German "Arbeit macht frei" sign from the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, police said, an act that sparked widespread outrage.

The sign, which means "Work Will Set You Free" in German, has become a symbol of the horror of the camp where about 1.1 million mainly Jewish prisoners died during World War II, most in the notorious gas chambers.

Police said the theft may have been ordered by a private collector or a group of individuals.

"A worldwide symbol of the cynicism of Hitler's executioners and the martyrdom of their victims has been stolen. This act deserves the strongest possible condemnation," Polish President Lech Kaczynski said in a statement.

His Israeli counterpart Shimon Peres expressed "the deepest shock of Israel's citizens and the Jewish community across the world".

"The sign holds deep historical meaning for both Jews and non-Jews alike as a symbol of the more than one million lives that perished at Auschwitz," Peres was quoted as saying by his office.

Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum spokesman Jaroslaw Mensfelt told AFP that thieves carried out an expert operation to take the metal sign just before dawn on Friday.

"It's a profanation of the place where more than a million people were murdered. It's shameful," he said.

Camp survivors also decried the theft.

"In taking this historic symbol, the perpetrators wanted to destroy history and committed this perverse act in order to revive Nazism," said Raphael Esrail, 84, president of the Union of Auschwitz Deportees in France.

The five-metre (16-foot) long sign was forged by prisoners on the orders of the Nazis, who set up the camp after invading Poland in 1939. It was not hard to unhook from above the entrance gate "but you needed to know how," Mensfelt said.

A police dog team was tracking the thieves while detectives combed through video surveillance footage from the site and neighbouring areas, and other officers set up roadblocks.

Mensfelt said it was the first serious case of theft at Auschwitz, located on the outskirts of the southern town of Oswiecim, which was annexed and renamed by Germany during World War II. The site has been a Polish state-run museum and memorial since the war ended in 1945.

"All leads are being considered, but we are focusing on a theft ordered by a private collector or a group of individuals," Oswiecim police spokeswoman Malgorzata Jurecka told AFP.

Police offered a 5,000-zloty (1,200-euro/1,700-dollar) reward for information leading to the recovery of the sign or the arrest of the thieves.

Kaczynski urged the public to help. "It's our collective duty to return it to its rightful place from which it has been ripped by force," he said.

Meanwhile, museum staff placed a replica sign above the gate.

Nazi Germany initially created the camp for Polish resistance fighters in an army barracks in 1940.

Auschwitz was later expanded into a vast complex, after the Nazis razed the nearby village of Brzezinka -- Birkenau in German.

About 1.1 million people perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau -- one million of them Jews from Poland and the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe -- some from overwork, starvation and disease, but mostly in the gas chambers.

It was one of six death camps set up in Poland by the Germans, who murdered six million Jews during the war.

Some of the other death camps had the same sign, erected in a cynical ploy to maintain the illusion that they were labour camps.

Auschwitz-Birkenau's other victims included non-Jewish Poles, Soviet and other Allied prisoners of war, Roma and anti-Nazi resistance members from across Europe.

It was liberated by Soviet troops in January 1945.

The theft came a day after Germany donated 60 million euros (88 million dollars) to a global fund to preserve the site.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum said the money represented half the total it needs to ensure the site's future as a permanent memorial to Nazi victims. About 4-5 million euros are needed each year to maintain it.

Father Jerzy Popieluszko - Solidarity Chaplain

VATICAN CITY (AFP) - – Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday approved the beatification of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the "Solidarity chaplain" who was murdered by the Polish secret service in 1984.

The decree placed the charismatic priest, a staunch anti-communist who laced his sermons with political messages backing the Solidarity trade union movement of future president Lech Walesa, a step away from sainthood.

Three Polish secret service officers abducted Father Popieluszko in October 1984 after he celebrated his last mass in Bydgoszcz, central Poland.

They tortured him to death and then threw his body into the River Vistula, some 120 kilometres (70 miles) north of Warsaw.

Identified thanks to the priest's chauffeur, the three were jailed for between 14 and 25 years.

In October, Popieluszko's mother accepted Poland's highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle, for her son.

His beatification process began in May 2001, and last year Benedict authorised a speedier procedure.

Because the murdered priest is considered a martyr, Popieluszko's beatification dossier did not require evidence of a miracle.

"Solidarity was alive because Father Popieluszko gave his life," Walesa said at a Rome screening of a documentary on Popieluszko.

"When the state cannot speak, the (Catholic) Church does. Without the symbiosis with the Church, Poland would have been wiped off the face of the earth," Walesa said.

The Nobel Peace laureate also said that he and Popieluszko felt the fact the pope at the time was Polish presented "an opportunity for Poland and other countries to make a break with communism."

Another film on Popieluszko, "To Kill a Priest," was made in 1988 by Polish director Agnieszka Holland starring Christopher Lambert.