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NEWS FEATURE: Sainthood for Croatian cardinal could be rocky road

c. 1998 Religion News Service VATICAN CITY _ The Vatican’s declaration last week that Croatia’s World War II Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac was a martyr for the faith comes at a time when Croatia’s murky wartime history _ and that of the cardinal _ is under close examination. Stepinac is regarded as a hero by Roman […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY _ The Vatican’s declaration last week that Croatia’s World War II Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac was a martyr for the faith comes at a time when Croatia’s murky wartime history _ and that of the cardinal _ is under close examination.

Stepinac is regarded as a hero by Roman Catholic Croatians for having stood up to a hardline communist regime after the war and declaring him a martyr paves the way for Pope John Paul II to beatify him when he visits Croatia in October.

But while Stepinac is a hero for resisting the communists, questions remain about his relationship with the fascists who ruled Croatia during the war.

Stepinac was jailed by the communists for allegedly collaborating with the Croatian fascist Ustashe regime _ a Nazi puppet government _ responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. After a show trial, he was sentenced in 1946 to 16 years of hard labor and died under house arrest in 1960.

In 1941, as archbishop of Zagreb, Stepinac had supported the regime of Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic. But by 1942 he had withdrawn his backing because of Pavelic’s policy of forced conversions and mass executions and had denounced the genocidal policy.

In today’s tense climate of ethnic mistrust between Serbs and Croats, however, many Serbs, who are Orthodox, still view Stepinac as a war criminal, seeing him as a symbol of other Croatian Catholics who were cozy with the Ustashe.”There is no doubt that too many Catholic clergy … had shown far too much sympathy with the Ustashe regime during the war and had condoned or turned a blind eye to their atrocities,”English historian Sir Duncan Wilson has written.

Jewish groups, too, are expressing concern about the Vatican steps toward beatification of Stepinic.”Archbishop Stepinic’s record of support for the Croatian Ustashe regime, along with his unwillingness to confront the regime’s acts of murder against Jews and Serbs, should clearly disqualify him from the exalted rank of sainthood,”said Mark Weitzman, director of the national task force against hate of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Weitzman said the efforts of the Vatican would be put to better use”in searching out and holding up as role models those who achieved true greatness, rather than forcing this honor on a political cleric where it does not belong.” The pope’s declaration that Stepinac was a martyr and the run-up to his beatification come at the same time that another case has spotlighted the Ustashe regime in a way that is putting contemporary Croatia’s claim to be a modern democracy on the line.

Dinko Sakic, now 76, was extradited to Croatia last month from Argentina, where he had lived for half a century, to go on trial for war crimes committed when he was deputy commander of the Ustashe regime’s notorious wartime concentration camp at Jasenovac.

His trial is due to begin around the end of the summer and could be under way when the pope visits Croatia in October.

Tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed at Jasenovac, called the”Auschwitz of the Balkans.”The great majority were Serbs, but victims also included Jews, Gypsies and antifascist Croats.

The Sakic case has had a deep impact on public opinion in Croatia, where President Franjo Tudjman has used a calculated ambivalence toward the wartime independent Croatia to foster Croatian nationalism.”Trying Sakic will be a good test of Tudjman’s government to show a real antifascist identity, and it will be a test for Croatian democracy,”Ivo Goldstein, a professor of Croatian history at the University of Zagreb, said in a telephone interview.”The state must show that it can organize a fair trial, based on fundamental, civic principles,”he said.”It must show that any crime, for whatever goal, must be condemned. This is a clear message that has to be sent to Croatian society and to the world itself.” While most Croats do not hold active neofascist sympathies, the country is sharply divided on the issue.”Reaction shows the division between an extremist chauvinist view and one attached to liberal values,”said Goldstein.

Indeed, present-day Croatia, which seceded from Yugoslavia to become independent in 1991, has both a fascist and a fiercely antifascist political legacy.

Many Croatians _ including Tudjman _ fought as antifascist partisans in the communist resistance movement led by Josip Broz Tito, who ruled postwar Yugoslavia until his death in 1980.

But in his drive to win Croatian independence and to assert a Croatian national identity, Tudjman played down the memory of Ustashe atrocities and persecutions. Instead, he invoked a positive image of the wartime Ustashe state as a brave Croatian entity struggling for nationhood.

The Yugoslav wars and bitter ethnic conflicts between Serbs and Croats in the 1990s exacerbated the issue.


Symbols and and even personalities of the fascist state _ the only other time in history Croatia has nominally been independent _ were incorporated into Croatia’s political fabric. Streets and squares were renamed and antifascist monuments were destroyed. Church services were held in honor of Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic, and Pavelic’s picture was hung with honor on the walls of some cafes and bars.

At the same time, Tudjman campaigned for a”reconciliation”between fascism and antifascism.

He went so far as to propose that Jasenovac be turned into a memorial to victims not just of fascism, but of communism and of the 1991 Serb-Croat war _ a memorial, he said, that would be”a tribute to all the victims … on Croatia’s way to independence and sovereignty … reconciling the dead as well as the living, their children and grandchildren.” Over the last eight years, said Goldstein.”Croatia has lost its antifascist identity. … The Sakic trial will show people that the Ustashe were not just good Croats.” Issues raised by the trial, he said go far beyond the attitude to the wartime Independent State of Croatia. They are, he said,”closely linked with the whole panorama of democratic values _ free press, the equality of all citizens, and attitudes to Jews and other minorities.”