ROME (Sep. 27)
Pope John Paul II is set to beatify a controversial archbishop from World War II despite a call by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to put off the ceremony pending an independent historical investigation into the Croatian cleric’s wartime record.
The pope is planning to beatify Alojzije Stepinac on Saturday during a two-day visit to Croatia.
Beatification is the final step before sainthood.
The pope declared Stepinac a “martyr to the faith” in July and earlier had proclaimed him a “servant of God.”
The ceremony is to take place in the small town of Marija Bistrica, home to a popular shrine to the Virgin Mary.
Historians have sharply differing views as to Stepinac’s role under the fascist Ustashe regime that ruled Croatia as a Nazi puppet state during World War II.
Last Friday, the Wiesenthal Center’s Paris-based European office said the beatification of Stepinac could be perceived by some as a “provocation” or even an attempt at “historical revision.”
In a letter to the Vatican, the center’s European director, Shimon Samuels, urged the pope to put off beatification “until after the completion of an exhaustive study of Stepinac’s wartime record based on full access to Vatican archives.”
“A decision to await the dispassionate judgment of independent historians would forestall the perception of, at best, a provocation and, at worst, an exercise in historical revision,” he wrote.
He cited “bitter memories and current religious sensitivities” in the former Yugoslavia and also reminded the pope of his frequently stated desire for reconciliation with the Jews.
Stepinac is regarded as a hero by Roman Catholic Croatians for having stood up to the Communists after the war.
But the Communists jailed Stepinac for collaborating with the Ustashe regime, which staged forced conversions and wholesale massacres 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.
As archbishop of Zagreb in 1941, Stepinac indeed supported the regime of Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic. But by 1942 he had withdrawn his backing and denounced the Ustashe’s genocidal policies.
In today’s tense climate of ethnic mistrust between Serbs and Croats, many Serbs, who belong to the Eastern Orthodox church, continue to view Stepinac as a war criminal.
They see him as a symbol of other Croatian Catholics who backed the Ustashe regime.
“There is no doubt that too many Catholic clergy, including Archbishop Saric of Sarajevo, had shown far too much sympathy with the Ustashe regime during the war and had condoned or turned a blind eye to their atrocities,” the English historian Sir Duncan Wilson has written.
The beatification comes at the same time that another case has spotlighted the crimes of the Ustashe regime.
Dinko Sakic was extradited in June to Croatia from Argentina, where he had lived for half a century.
Sakic faces trial for war crimes committed when he was commander of the Ustashe regime’s notorious wartime concentration camp at Jasenovac.
An estimated 500,000 people were tortured and killed at Jasenovac, known as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans.” The great majority were Serbs, but victims also included Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats.