A book published this fall has revealed documents suggesting that Cardinal Alojz Stepinac, the late leader of Yugoslavis's Roman Catholics who was sentenced as a Nazi collaborator after World War II, had both privately and publicly opposed violent and racist policies of the wartime Fascist regime in Croatia.
Stepinac, who served as archbishop of Zagreb, complained about "terrible acts of violence and cruelty" committed by Croat Fascists in his letter to Ante Pavelic, the Fascist leader of Croatia, according to author Stella Alexander.
Stepinac's letters also include warnings against forced conversion to Catholicism of Eastern Orthodox and Jewish populations and includes reports that non-Croat Yugoslavs "are captured like animals, they are slaughtered, murdered, living men are thrown off cliffs.'
In his public sermons, Stepinac criticized "irresponsible elements who, against the laws of God and man, take revenge on innocent people." He also publicly critized the application of racial laws to mixed Jewish and Gentile marriages.
In several sermons during the war, Stepinac critized genocide carried out against Serbs and Jews, saying that "all nations and all races have their origin in God. Only one race really exists. The Catholic Church has always condemned and condemns today as well every injustice and every violence committed in the name of the theories of class, race or nationalities. vIt knows nothing of races born to rule and races doomed to slavery."
Alexander's book, "Church and State in Yugoslavia Since 1945," makes it clear that other persons in the Roman Catholic hierarchy were deeply involved in supporting the Croatian Fascists and that some clerics, notably Archbishop Saric of Sarajevo, were allies with unmistakably criminal elements in the Fascist movement known as the Ustashi.
According to official figures, 1.7 million Yugoslavs were killed during the war, a vast majority victim to the fratricidal war between Croats and Serbs that erupted after Nazi Germany invaded Yugoslavia in 1941. In that year, Stepinac announced the founding of an independent Croat state controlled by the puppet Ustashi government.
After the war, he was tried on charges of collaboration and sentenced to 16 years in prison. It was the first major controversy involving the church in Eastern Europe, leading the Vatican to sever relations with Yugoslavia and Pope Pius XII to make the archbishop a cardinal during his imprisonment.
Stepinac spent five years in prison before he was released to spend the rest of his life as a parish priest in his native village of Krasic. Six years after his death in 1960, Yugoslavia and the Vatican resumed diplomatic relations.
The Alexander book, published by Cambridge University Press, notes that Stepinac never took an oath of allegiance to the Fascist Croat state and that he personally intervened in defense of Serb and Jewish individuals or groups, the most notable being the rescue of 7000 non-Catholic children slated for extermination camps.
On one occasion, he hid a rabbi in the archbishops's palace in Zagreb and urged the Fascist minister of interior in a letter to rescind the order that Jews had to wear Star of David armbands.
Alexander, who interviewed a number of persons in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, suggests that Stepinac was tried by the Communists for political reasons. She does not ignore criminal actions of other clerics, but she suggests that the archbishop himself had nothing to do with them.
He was a man of "moderate intelligence" lacking "in wider insight," she said. "His narrow intense faith and his political short sightedness limited his grasp of the apocalyptic events in 1941 and left him open to the charge of complicity in the terrible crimes of the Ustashi."
But, she also saw him as a courageous figure. "Nearly everyone who came into contact with him held him in esteem and affection," she wrote. "His personal life was ascetic; he left no possessions on his death. The terrible times in which he was fated to play a role called for a moral and spiritual giant, and he did not quite measure up to them."