Pope hails cardinal as martyr Serbs riled

Orthodox minority recalls Croatian hero as an ally of former pro-Nazi regime

October 04, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MARIJA BISTRICA, Croatia -- Hailing the World War II archbishop of Zagreb as a martyr to "the atrocities of the Communist system," Pope John Paul II beatified him yesterday.

Beatification is the final step before sainthood. But by paying such homage to Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, who was imprisoned by the Tito regime as a Nazi collaborator, the pope stepped into one of the most divisive Serbo-Croatian disputes in the embattled regions of the former Yugoslavia.

Stepinac is a national hero to millions of Roman Catholic Croats, and to Croatia's nationalist president, Franjo Tudjman. To Orthodox Serbs, who formed a minority in Croatia for centuries but have largely left or been driven from Tudjman's state, the beatification is a political provocation. They have long viewed Stepinac as a wartime sympathizer with the pro-Nazi puppet regime that killed tens, even hundreds, of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies -- a regime that many here see as the precursor of today's independent state.

In his pastoral visit to Croatia, the 78-year-old pope, who has been in office 20 years this month, seems to be viewing history through a different prism than do the peoples he says he wants to reconcile. It is perhaps not surprising that the Polish-born John Paul, who used his pulpit to help topple Soviet totalitarianism, would revere a church leader who was persecuted by the Communists and died under house arrest in 1960.

But in post-Communist Croatia, it has been a long time since religion was viewed as a bulwark against an atheist oppressor. As one of the few tangible differences between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, religion has for the past 10 years been a main ingredient of the nationalist hatreds that have fed their war.

Among the more than 350,000 believers who crowded on a steep, damp hill in front of the pope's outdoor altar, people expressed pride in the beatification and defiance of its critics.

"It is good to have a saint of our own, someone to speak to God for us," said Kruno Cabraka, 20, a Zagreb student who arrived in Marija Bistrica at 2 a.m. to secure a glimpse of the pope.

He shrugged off the complaints of minorities: "We don't care about their saints. Why should they care about ours?"

John Paul has not visited Orthodox Serbia but has made several trips to other regions of the former Yugoslavia, always preaching peace and unity in an area brutally torn by ethnic and religious differences. In 1994 he made his first visit to Croatia, which is more than 75 percent Catholic and which lost a third of its territory to the Serbs after it broke away from Yugoslavia in a 1991 war.

The United Nations has returned control of Eastern Slavonia -- the last Serbian-dominated area in Croatia -- to the Tudjman government. But tensions remain high.

The Orthodox Church is unforgiving of what it sees as the Catholic Church's complicity in the systematic murder, eviction or forced conversion of Serbs during World War II. Under Tudjman's leadership , many Croats are recasting the pro-Nazi Ustashe fascist movement as patriotic.

The beatification of Stepinac strikes a raw nerve. After Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941, Ante Pavelic led a pro-Nazi dictatorship that controlled a newly independent Croatia. The archbishop of Zagreb, a fervent anti-Communist, initially embraced the Pavelic government as "God's hand at work."

But as evidence mounted of atrocities against Serbs, Jews and other minorities, the archbishop withdrew his support. By 1942, he began denouncing Ustashe excesses, once in a letter to Pavelic and, in 1943, in church homilies and letters to priests. Arrested by Tito's forces in 1946, the archbishop was given a show trial and imprisoned. He was released under house arrest in 1951. Pope Pius XII later made him cardinal.

The Vatican and many historians credit him with saving hundreds of Jewish and Serbian lives, but his critics maintain that by not speaking out more, he condoned and effectively supported the Ustashe regime. To Serbs he has long been a symbol of the many Catholic priests who cooperated with the Ustashe.

John Paul II, who has canonized more than 270 people and beatified almost 800, has made more saints than any other pope in history. The cause of Stepinac is one of the most controversial to date.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris asked the Vatican to delay beatification of Stepinac until historians could study the case further. The intervention infuriated Croatian and Vatican officials.

In Croatia, the Jewish community expressed resignation.

"There is no question he saved hundreds of Jews and others," said Slavko Goldstein, leader of the Jewish community in Croatia. "He tried to correct some of the worst aspects, but he never condemned the regime as such."

Pub Date: 10/04/98

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