Analysis 10 May 16

Croatian Church Urged to Tackle ‘Fascist Sympathisers’

The Catholic Church in Croatia should take action against priests who make statements in support of the country’s World War II-era Nazi-aligned regime, analysts urged.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
The church leadership in Croatia. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Stipe Majic.

The televised intervention of a Catholic priest in the ongoing public debate about Croatia’s WWII Nazi-aligned Independent State of Croatia, NDH, has again highlighted far-right tendencies among an outspoken minority of the country’s clergy.

During a mass in coastal city of Split, which was screened live on Sunday by public broadcaster Croatian Radio-Television, HRT, priest Luka Prcela strongly criticised Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic for stating that the NDH “wasn’t independent and was criminal”.

“I can’t forgive Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic for saying that the Croatian state, the Independent State [of Croatia], wasn’t independent and that it was criminal,” Prcela said.

During a visit to Croatia in April by the US State Department envoy for Holocaust issues, Nicholas Dean, Grabar Kitarovic condemned the NDH and its notorious Ustasa fighting units.

“The NDH wasn’t independent at all and it didn’t protect the interests of the Croatian people at all, while the Ustasa regime was a criminal regime,” she said.

Prcela accused Grabar Kitarovic of bowing to pressure from the US official.

“Who says that today’s Croatian state is more independent from the one that existed from 1941 to 1945?” Prcela asked.

“I ask her a question, why she didn’t tell them that it was not the Croats who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” he added.

Prcela insisted that the NDH was a legal and internationally recognised state and never killed anyone outside the country’s borders.

Cardinal Josip Bozanic, the archbishop of Zagreb, leading a prayer. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Stipe Majic

Political analyst Davor Gjenero said however that Prcela’s statements “don’t come as a much of a surprise”.

“Unfortunately we have heard similar things from the person concerned here. He has used the same rhetoric for the last 25 years and has been holding holy ceremonies for [NDH leader] Ante Pavelic. The only positive thing is that higher authorities within the Church have distanced themselves from his statements,” Gjenero told BIRN.

Under the mentorship of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, the NDH was created in April 1941 by the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement led by Pavelic.

Until its fall in May 1945, NDH was responsible for passing racially discriminatory laws against Serbs, Jews and Roma, which resulted in mass atrocities and over 83,000 deaths at the Jasenovac concentration camp.

During that time, many senior Catholic clergy were close to the NDH’s leaders, as the regime saw the Catholic religion as one of the pillars of society. When Communist-led Yugoslavia was established in 1945, the Church lost its influence and some of its property, although it was not banned.

Another priest also joined the debate on Monday, which is commemorated in the former Yugoslavia as Victory Day, marking the defeat of the Nazis in 1945.

Priest Nikola Mate Roscic told a mass for young people in Split that the end of World War II was the start of an era of deadly oppression of Croats by Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslav Communist regime.

“The world celebrates Victory Day, but we Croats have nothing to celebrate, because Victory Day for us was a day of defeat and grief,” Roscic said.

“For many nations, that day is celebrated the end of World War II and the end of fascism and Nazism, but what a miracle, for us Croats it’s the day of the beginning of our suffering,” he added.

Priest Mate Mutinic shouting 'Za dom spremni', a Croatian fascist slogan.

Croatian theologian Drago Pilsel, the editor-in-chief of the Autograf website, urged Prcela’s direct superior, Friar Anto Gavric, and Split archbishop Marin Barisic to clearly condemn the priest’s comments about the NDH.

Friar Gavric said that Prcela’s position is not that of the Croatian Dominican Province, the Catholic order to which he belongs, but that a priest could not be told what to say during a mass.

Pilsel said that Catholic Church in Croatia rarely condemns the Ustasa regime or says anything positive about the anti-fascist movement, and that nostalgia for the wartime administration still exists within the clergy’s ranks.

“When the Church comprehensively and seriously approaches the issue… it will have to do so as it did on May 1, 1995 [on the 50th anniversary of the end of WWII],” he told BIRN.

Back then, while the conflict with rebel Croatian Serbs was still ongoing and in what appeared to be an attempt to improve relations between Serbs and Croats, the Church said that the country needed to examine its own responsibility for what happened during WWII, Pilsel said.

He also suggested that “war-mongering priests” are likely to become increasingly marginalised in the future.

Gjenero said meanwhile that although such scandals are not that uncommon, they do not represent the official position of the Church in Croatia and some of the more radical clergymen have already started to become marginalised in recent years.

“Nevertheless, the Church should react more strongly and more quickly to such incidents,” he suggested.

Pilsel recalled how the Catholic Church in Argentina apologised in 2000 for not standing up to military junta during the repressive campaign known as the ‘Dirty War’ between 1976 and 1983.

“It’s time, in my opinion, for the Croatian Bishops’ Conference to produce a document in which it will publically state and clearly define its position towards Pavelic, the Ustasa movement and the crimes committed by the Ustasa,” he said.

Pilsel believes that a commission formed by Pope Francis that includes representatives of the both Catholic and Serbian Orthodox Churches, which will discuss the arguments for and against the canonisation of WWII Croatian Catholic cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, could bring some positive changes.

The Catholic Church wants Stepinac to be declared a saint despite strong opposition from the Orthodox Church because of his close relations with the NDH authorities, but it is hoped that the commission will reach a mutually acceptable solution.

Schoolchildren singing along with Marko Perkovic Thompson in Sibenik.

A mass for NDH leader Pavelic is still held every year in Zagreb and several clergymen have openly sympathised with the Ustasa.

Vlado Kosic, a bishop in Sisak in central Croatia, and Valentin Pozaic, an assistant bishop in Zagreb, both signed a petition demanding that the Ustasa chant of ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Homeland’) be introduced into the army, which was sent to Grabar Kitarovic last August.

A Catholic priest Mato Mutinic also greeted former fighters from the Rafael Boban unit of the 1990s paramilitary Croatian Defence Forces with the ‘Za dom spremni’ slogan when it marked its 25 anniversary in April.

According to the 2011 census, 86 per cent of Croatian citizens consider themselves Catholic, while a survey conducted in 2015 by Institute of Social Sciences ‘Ivo Pilar’ suggested that the church is the second most trusted institution in the country after the military.

Religious education is optional in primary and high schools, but uptake is 92 and 81 per cent of pupils respectively, giving the Catholic Church a strong influence on schoolchildren, as religious education teachers are appointed by the church.

Some religious education teachers have introduced nationalist elements into their classes.

One screened the controversial documentary Jasenovac - The Truth, which questions the death toll at the wartime NDH concentration camp, to high school pupils in the town of Sisak in April, while another played nationalist singer Marko Perkovic Thompson’s song Cavoglave, which starts with ‘Za dom spremni’, to pupils attending a lecture at a school in Sibenik the same month.

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