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Saturday, October 3, 1998 Published at 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK

World: Europe

Controversial cardinal beatified

Pope John Paul: Controversy has surrounded both his visits to Croatia

The Pope, on a visit to Croatia, has taken a step towards making the controversial wartime leader of the Croatian Catholic Church into a saint.

BBC's Nick Thorpe in Marija Bistrica: "Beatification rejects criticism"
Pope John Paul II beatified Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac at a huge open-air service at the shrine of Marija Bistrica, the most important place of pilgrimage for Catholics in Croatia.

He had already declared the Cardinal, who led the church in Croatia during World War II, a martyr for the faith, but the beatification - the final step before sainthood - has caused controversy.

Some Serbian and international Jewish groups say the cardinal was not outspoken enough about genocide during World War II.

Cardinal Stepinac initially welcomed the independent state of Croatia which was set up with the help of Nazi Germany in 1941.

In a statement issued on the eve of the Pope's visit, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman said the cardinal was a beacon of inspiration for Croatian democrats.

In later life, Cardinal Stepinac condemned the killing of Jews, Serbs, gypsies and Croats who opposed the former fascist Croatian government, but some say that his condemnation was neither strong nor public enough.

The cardinal was later imprisoned under communism and died while under house arrest in 1960 after serving five years of a 15-year prison sentence for alleged collaboration with the fascist government.

The Jewish Simon Wiesenthal Centre recently appealed to the Pope to postpone the beatification "until after the completion of an exhaustive study of Stepinac's wartime record". The Vatican did not reply publicly to the request.

Appeal for peace

Pope John Paul II began his visit to Croatia by appealing for lasting peace and justice in the Balkans.

[ image: Pope: Called for peace]
Pope: Called for peace
Addressing a large crowd in front of Zagreb Cathedral, the Pope expressed the hope that the conflict-torn Balkan region would find "a true and lasting peace, which is always built upon justice, respect for others, and the co-existence of different peoples and cultures".

The 78-year-old Pope was welcomed in person by President Tudjman.

But his speech also seemed to include gentle criticism of his hosts, when he remarked that "the degree of a nation's civilisation is measured by the compassion it shows for its weakest and most needy members" - an apparent reference to Croatia's Serb minority.

The Pope's first visit, in 1994, was marked by his appeal for reconciliation with Serbs who still occupied parts of Croatia.

During his three-day visit, the Pope will also attend an open-air Mass in the coastal city of Split.

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Internet Links

The Holy See - official Vatican web site

Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac (1898-1960)

Croatian Institute for Culture and Information

History File: News Online's guide to Yugoslavia and the Balkans

Simon Wiesenthal Center

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