By Bruce Johnston, Rome correspondent POPE Pius XII wrote to President Franklin D Roosevelt opposing the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, it has emerged.
The text of the letter, sent on June 22 1943, was published in a Jerusalem newspaper after turning up recently in United States' national archives.
"It is true that Palestine was once inhabited by the Jewish people," the Pope wrote. "But there is nothing in history that proves that a people must return to the land it left 19 centuries before."
He added: "If a Jewish homeland is required, it should not be too hard to find a more suitable location than Palestine. The growth of the Jewish population in Palestine would generate new and serious international problems."
Rabbi Marvin Hier, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles, which is one of the leading critics of moves to beatify the wartime Pope, said the letter showed that "Pius XII was able to speak his mind when he wanted to".
The comment was a reference to oft-repeated claims that Pius, who was Pope from 1939 to 1958, did not speak out enough against the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and of doing nothing to stop the Holocaust.
The Vatican last week published secret documents concerning Pius X1I's diplomatic efforts with the Jews.
Jewish groups have lobbied the Holy See to open its secret archives containing records of Pope Pius's actions during the war to independent experts. The Vatican has declined, saying that the archives contain no more relevant information.
However, the decision announced this week by the Greek film director, Costa Gavras, to soon begin shooting a film based on a play called The Vicar, by Rolf Hochhuth, son of a German wartime army officer, which criticises Pius XII for his alleged "silence"
is thought to have aroused deep concern.
In 1965, the Vatican succeeded in having the play, starring Gian Maria Volonte, banned in Rome by invoking the Lateran agreement between Church and state. The Vatican claimed the play violated the sacred character of the City of Rome.
In the first decades after the creation of Israel in 1948, relations with the Holy See were strained. Full diplomatic ties between the two states were established only in 1993. For decades no Vatican document mentioned the word "Israel", until Pope John Paul II referred to the Jews "who preserve in that state such precious testimonies to their history and faith".
In 1998, the Holy See produced a study of the Holocaust, condemning anti-Semitism. This built on an earlier papal document in 1985, in which Pope John Paul II wrote of the debt Christians owed to Jews.
Relations took another step further this year, when Vatican officials held talks with the Israeli government over the possibility of a papal visit to the Holy Land, marking the Great Jubilee Year 2000.