(CNSNews.com) - The Vatican, with its permanent observer status at the United Nations under fire, may now face a challenge from survivors of Nazi-era war crimes in the Balkans.
Serb and Jewish survivors of atrocities committed by the Nazi-installed puppet regime in wartime Croatia have asked U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan to investigate their claims that the Vatican and a Roman Catholic monastic order collaborated with the perpetrators.
In an open letter issued through their lawyers, the victims - who are bringing a class action lawsuit against the Vatican Bank and the Franciscan order - urged Annan to persuade the Vatican to open its wartime archives, or face "appropriate action" to encourage them to do so.
The Vatican enjoys permanent observer status at the U.N., while Franciscans International is a recognized non-governmental organization at the U.N.
The Vatican's status is currently under fire from a coalition of pro-abortion, feminist and other organizations, spearheaded by a Catholic "pro-choice" group, campaigning to have it revoked, charging that the Holy See's statehood is legally questionable.
The groups are incensed at the Vatican's consistent opposition in U.N. forums to measures that would liberalize abortion and contraception, particularly in developing countries.
The group of victims and relatives of victims who are bringing the lawsuit in a San Francisco district court currently number 25. They come from the United States, Yugoslavia and the Ukraine, said their attorney, Jonathan Levy.
Papers have been served on the Vatican Bank, the Franciscans, and were soon to be served on the Croatian Liberation Movement, which Levy said was understood to be the "direct successors to the Ustashe" - the wartime fascist organization which ruled Croatia.
The suit alleges that gold and other assets worth about $170 million today, not including interest, were looted by the Ustashe and safeguarded by the Vatican after World War II.
In their letter to Annan, the victims charge that some members of the Franciscan order collaborated with the Ustashe, were actively involved in atrocities, and knowingly helped wanted Ustashe war criminals, including its notorious leader Ante Pavelic, to escape justice after the war.
They say the Vatican organized and financed the "rat line" which enabled leading Nazis and Ustashe members to escape to Latin America. The escape route was allegedly partly funded by assets stolen from concentration camp and other victims, looted by the Ustashe, and removed to the Vatican.
The Vatican and Franciscans have consistently denied involvement in these activities.
Pope Pius XII's alleged silence in the face of Nazi genocide has long sparked controversy. His defenders say he spoke out in Christmas Eve homilies during 1941 and 1942 against the extermination of Jews.
Many European Christians, Catholics and Protestant, took a stance against the Nazis during the war. Thousands of Catholics, including clergymen, were murdered by the Nazis because of their opposition to Hitler.
The Nazis installed the Ustashe in power in Croatia after Yugoslavia fell to the Nazis in April 1941. More than 600,000 people - Serbs, Jews and Roma (gypsies) - were killed in the Balkans by the fascist regime.
Those bringing the lawsuit say family and community members were subject to "mass rape, beheadings, torture, mutilations, burnings, establishment of concentration and forced labor camps, destruction of Orthodox Churches and Jewish Synagogues, and looting of assets valued in the hundreds of millions by the Ustashe and Franciscans."
They wrote to Annan: "Unlike every other civilized nation the Vatican has refused to acknowledge its complicity in genocide and has refused repeated requests by the United States government, Jewish and Roma organizations to open its World War II archives to public scrutiny."
Levy said the plaintiffs were seeking access to more than 250 U.S. Army Intelligence documents on one Krunoslav Draganavich, believed to have been the head of the Vatican operation which laundered Ustashe funds and smuggled Nazis out of Europe.
Some "heavily sanitized" documents had been released to the attorneys, he said, but Army Intelligence withheld over 250 documents on grounds of "national security."
"We are appealing this decision through an administrative process and if unsuccessful will go to Federal Court."
A 1998 State Department report entitled "The Fate of the Wartime Ustasha Treasury" implicated the Vatican and Franciscans is a number of postwar crimes now being cited by the lawsuit plaintiffs.
Wartime documents raise questions
Recently a London newspaper published previously undiscovered documents which showed that Britain's wartime leader, Winston Churchill asked a prominent British Catholic family in 1940 to lobby the Vatican at the time to denounce the Nazis and support the Allied cause.
The Sunday Telegraph said the discovery of the 1940 papers "undermine the arguments of papal apologists who claim that the Allies understood the reasons for the Pope's silence because they appreciated he was in an impossible position."
One letter, from former Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, warned that Pope Pius XII's stance left Catholics with the impression that a Europe dominated by Hitler was the Pope's preferred outcome to the war.
"If the Catholics of, say, Belgium, Holland and France could be persuaded that somehow Nazism was reconcilable with their religious faith and moral outlook, then a potentially powerful center of resistance to Nazi plans of domination would be removed," Halifax wrote to Lord Fitzalan, a leading Catholic and former Conservative lawmaker.
One Foreign Office telegram questioned the wisdom of the Vatican's stance.
"What in the day of triumph for justice and fair-dealing will be the feeling of Catholics the world over towards the church if it can be said of it that after at first standing against Nazi paganism it eventually agreed by its silence to assist in discrediting the principles upon which it is founded?"
The London Times last month cited newly-found documents showing that Britain's Minister to the Holy See, Francis D'Arcy Godolphin Osborne, had given the Vatican a daily report of Nazi atrocities, starting in 1940.
Last April, Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. special representative and secretary of state for Holocaust issues, told the Senate foreign relations committee that the Vatican had "authorized a group of Jewish and Catholic scholars to thoroughly review its collection of published documents from the Nazi era."
He welcomed the step and expressed the hope that it would "lead to additional measures for archival openness."
But it is unpublished records that Jewish scholars would like to see, rather than an 11-volume work commissioned by the Vatican and published by four Jesuit priests in the 1980s.
Israeli government minister Natan Sharansky urged Pope John Paul II earlier this year to open the wartime records.
"As long as the Vatican archives are off-limits to historians and survivors, the full truth will remain elusive, thereby casting a shadow over efforts toward Jewish-Catholic rapprochement," he wrote.