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Croatia: Pope John Paul II Visits To Beatify Controversial Cleric

Prague, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Pope John Paul II is to arrive tomorrow (Oct. 2) in Croatia for a two-day visit. It promises to be a controversial trip.

At the heart of the controversy is the pope's intention to beatify the late Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac. Beatification is the penultimate step in the Roman Catholic Church before sainthood.

Stepinac was archbishop of Croatia's capital Zagreb during World War II, when a pro-Nazi Croat state, which also encompassed parts of today's Bosnia and Serbia, established a long record of persecutions against Serbs, Jews and Gypsies.

There is no indication that Stepinac colluded in those exterminatory practices or acquiesced to the policies of the government. Indeed, he opposed and criticized both.

But there is also no doubt that Stepinac was a Croat nationalist --his supporters say he was deeply patriotic -- and he gave his approval to the emergence of the pro-Nazi state. At least, initially.

After the war, Stepinac publicly opposed the new Communist regime. He was arrested by the Communist Yugoslav government and sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of collaboration with the Nazis and Croatian Fascists. The punishment was later changed to house arrest. Stepinac died in 1960.

In today's independent Croatia, Stepinac is seen by many as a hero for his patriotism and his resistance to Communist regime, which consistently tried to suppress both Croatian separateness and religion.

Speaking recently with editors of the Catholic magazine Mi, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman said that Stepinac "supported a right of Croatian people to have their own state...He decisively opposed fascist methods...racist laws and crimes but also communist regime."

The Croatian government has strongly supported the Vatican's plans to beatify Stepinac. Roman Catholics make up more than 70 percent of Croatia's 4.5 million population.

But those plans have been equally strongly opposed by Stepinac's many critics, particularly Serbs and Jews.

Serb critics argue that while Stepinac himself might not have been involved in the practices of the pro-Nazi regime, his nationalistic views could at least indirectly give a degree of support to its leaders and officials. And then, they say, he was there as head of the Church in a fascist state and that alone would taint him as a potential collaborator.

Last week, the European branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a prominent Jewish organization specializing in hunting down former Nazis and their allies, asked the Vatican in a letter to postpone any moves toward Stepinac's beatification pending a thorough investigation of his past activities.

None of those criticism and appeals has affected Pope John Paul II's determination to go ahead with the process of beatification.

The Vatican says that Stepinac's activities have been studied by Church scholars, who determined that he should be beatified.

Indeed, many historians --Catholic and others alike-- now agree that Stepinac consistently opposed dictatorial governments, pro-Nazi and Communist as well. There are also documents testifying that he saved the lives of Jews --"though whether he could have done more, that's another question," Mihael Montiljo, a prominent member of Zagreb's Jewish community has recently told a Western reporter (Reuters). And there are records of Stepinac's defense of rights of people regardless of their religion: Catholics, Jews, Orthodox and Muslims.

This support for religious freedom appears to be the most important argument in the Vatican's decision on beatification. And the decision was not sudden.

Four years ago, during the 1994 visit to Croatia, Pope John Paul II spoke about Stepinac as "the most illustrious figure of God's Church amongst Croats." Stepinac's persecution at the hands of the Communist government clearly was seen by the pope as an assault by a secular power against a very principle of religious freedom. And this appears to have been a major factor in that assessment.

This pope has repeatedly demonstrated his iron determination to defend freedom of religion everywhere and under any circumstances. The beatification and the sainthood are methods of publicizing that principle.

This has been evident in similar moves elsewhere: in Asia and in Europe, where recent saints were frequently victims of government-directed oppression. Stepinac's beatification is but another example of that policy.

It is also not a simply anti-Communist move. Indeed, the Church in Croatia has recently been increasingly critical of the government, charging that the post-Communist political evolution only led to a growing gap between newly enriched capitalists and masses of poor people. The Croat Church's position corresponds to well-established and frequently stated positions of the pope himself.

In this context, the ceremonial beatification of Cardinal Stepinac is a clearly calculated move by the pope to strengthen the Church in Croatia by providing it with a symbolic recognition. It also is designed to reinforce the principle that the Church should be free to act and conduct its spiritual mission free of pressures and restraints imposed by secular governments.