Pope Beatifies Controversial Wartime Croatian Archbishop

Pope John Paul II has beatified a controversial cardinal revered by Croatians as an anti-Communist martyr but reviled by others as a fascist collaborator.

The pope, on a two-day visit to Croatia, proclaimed Zagreb’s World War II archbishop Alojzije Stepinac a “blessed” of the Roman Catholic Church — the step before sainthood — before an ecstatic crowd of 350,000 at a shrine near Zagreb on Saturday.

The ceremony consecrated Stepinac as a Croatian national symbol as well as a Catholic religious hero.

To illustrate the ceremony’s national and religious purposes, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, whose policy often pays homage to Croatia’s national identity, joined the pope on the altar at the end of the beatification mass to the strains of the national anthem.

“The newly beatified sums up, so to speak, the whole tragedy which befell the Croatian people and Europe in the course of this century marked by the three great evils of fascism, national socialism and communism,” the pope told the crowd during the ceremony.

“He is now in the joy of heaven, surrounded by all those who, like him, fought the good fight, purifying their faith in the crucible of suffering,” he said.

The beatification took place despite protests by the Serbian government and a call by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to put it off “until after the completion of an exhaustive study of Stepinac’s wartime record.”

Croatian Jewish groups however, disassociated themselves from the protest.

Historians differ sharply as to Stepinac’s role under the regime of the Ustashe, the fascists who ruled Croatia as a Nazi puppet state from 1941 to 1945.

Yugoslavia’s hard-line postwar Communist government jailed the anti-Communist 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. He died under house arrest in 1960.

As archbishop of Zagreb in 1941, Stepinac, who admitted feeling nationalist fervor, had supported the regime of Ustashe leader Ante Pavelic. But by 1942 he withdrew his backing and denounced its policy.

Many Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, continue to view Stepinac as a war criminal and as a symbol of Croatian Catholics who openly backed the Ustashe.

During the beatification ceremony, John Paul called for a reconciliation of the ethnic hatreds that have torn apart the Balkans and sparked bloody wars amid the breakup of Yugoslavia.

He appealed to the faithful “to forgive and reconcile and to purify one’s memory of hatred” and “the desire for revenge.”

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