News 16 Feb 17

Nazi Hunter Warns Against Canonising Croatian Archbishop

Nazi-hunter Efraim Zuroff said that the canonisation of controversial World War II Croatian archbishop Alojzije Stepinac would be “a religious tragedy” because he didn’t condemn fascist crimes.

Sven Milekic
Efraim Zuroff. Photo: Sven Milekic/BIRN

Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s Israel and Eastern Europe office, condemned on Wednesday the ongoing push by the Catholic Church in Croatia to canonise Zagreb’s World War II-era archbishop Alojzije Stepinac.

“It is quite clear, and 100 per cent true that the Catholic Bishop Alojzije Stepinac was close to the [fascist] Ustasa regime of the Independent Croatian State [NDH]. He never spoke out against the system and didn’t condemn its crimes, and if he is canonised, it will be a religious tragedy,” Zuroff told Radio-Television Vojvodina.

Zuroff said that Croatian authorities should not honour Stepinac by naming streets after him or erecting monuments to him, as they did in the eastern city of Osijek last week.

“I tried to draw the attention of the authorities in Zagreb not to do so, but there's no justice nor truth,” he said.

In an interview for BIRN last year, Zuroff also spoke out against Stepinac’s canonisation, by saying that “any person that served the Ustasa regime doesn’t deserve that honour”.

Stepinac was a staunch Croatian nationalist, an as Archbishop of Zagreb during World War II, he blessed the establishment of the NDH.

He later distanced himself from the NDH regime and its deeds. However, he is accused of not publicly denouncing the NDH’s policy of killing Jews, Serbs and Roma and of forcibly converting Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism.

For that reason, the issue of his canonisation remains very controversial in neighbouring Serbia and with the Serbian Orthodox Church.

For this reason, Pope Francis urged in 2015 that a mixed commission of representatives from the Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church discuss Stepinac’s role before, during and after WWII.

The most recent meeting of the commission was held in Novi Sad in Serbia on Tuesday, during which the topic of his relations with the NDH were discussed.

The next meeting of the commission will take place in the eastern Croatian town of Pozega in March when his relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church during WWII will be discussed.

Many Catholics in Croatia are passionate about Stepinac, seeing him as a heroic figure who resisted the imposition of Communism and remained with his flock in the country after the Communist takeover, when he could have fled abroad.

His supporters also note that attacks on him for his wartime role only really started after he publicly opposed the imposition of Communist rule in Yugoslavia.

After his trial before a Yugoslav court in 1946, Stepinac was jailed for 16 years for collaboration with the Ustasa and the Axis occupying forces. He was released into house arrest after five years and died in 1960 of thrombosis.

The verdict convicting him was quashed last July by the Zagreb county court, which ruled that Stepinac did not get a fair trial under the Yugoslav Communist regime.

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