Pope's visit to Croatia to aid, harm

September 10, 1994|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

ZAGREB -- Today's visit of Pope John Paul II to Croatia has sent a deeply divisive message throughout the former Yugoslavia. It was something he had tried to avoid with his original plan to visit all three warring parties: the Croatian Roman Catholics, the Bosnian Muslims and the Serbian Orthodox.

But the Serbian Orthodox Church rebuffed him. His security could not be guaranteed in Sarajevo. So he has ended up doing exactly what he did not intend: visiting just Croatia and raking up the kind of memories that have led to the present civil war.

More than half a million Roman Catholic faithful from Croatia and abroad have bought tickets for his planned Mass in a Zagreb racetrack.

The two-day visit is a ground-breaking in several respects -- the first to Croatia since its people became Roman Catholics more than 1,000 years ago, the first to the former Yugoslavia and the pope's first foreign trip in a year plagued by illness and injury.

Nowhere has the religious revival along ethnic lines that followed the collapse of communism been stronger than in Croatia. Former Communist hard-liners fill church pews on Sunday. Religious education classes are packed. There are mass baptisms. Religious holidays are scrupulously observed -- though radio and television stations have had to explain their significance.

President Franjo Tudjman has forged strong links between his ++ Croatian Democratic Union and the Roman Catholic Church, making them almost inseparable. Prime-time news on state television often is largely devoted to church activities.

Mr. Tudjman said the papal pilgrimage expressed solidarity with Croatian statehood under his government. A senior aide made it clear that Zagreb would use the visit to further its agenda of breaking a revolt by Serbs in Croatia's Krajina area.

In Croatia and other former Yugoslav republics, it is unsurprising therefore that the visit of the pope is regarded as the benediction of the Catholic Church for Mr. Tudjman's regime. And as the trigger for memories of the role of Croatia and the Catholic Church in World War II.

When Hitler conquered Yugoslavia in 1941, he ushered in what )) can only be described as a religious and tribal war between the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. Hitler created an independent Croatian state and placed at its head Dr. Ante Pavelic, leader of the Croatian fascists.

The Pavelic government brought back the Dark Ages, carrying out mass killings of Serbs and Jews with exceptional cruelty. The role of the Croatian Roman Catholic hierarchy remains ambiguous. Its lower clergy openly sanctioned the crimes. They also carried out forced mass conversions to Roman Catholicism.

The Serbs have accused the Vatican repeatedly of never having faced up to this history. They also dislike Mr. Tudjman, who, before he became president, was a historian who devoted his efforts to minimizing the atrocities carried out by Croatian fascists.

There were indications that the pope was concerned about the excesses of Croatian nationalists. Last year he refused to visit Croatia.

Even within Mr. Tudjman's own party, there are younger politicians who are opposed to Croatia's turning into a clerical state.

One of them, Nadan Vidosevic, the governor of the Split area, said that the ruling party should instead model itself on the West European Christian Democratic parties.

"The Christian-democracy we want is not the same as clericalism. It is a world view which allows a broad spectrum of people to find themselves."

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