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Saturday, October 3, 1998 Published at 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK

World: Europe

The Pope's provocative choices

Pope John Paul prays by the embalmed body of Cardinal Stepinac

By Religious Affairs Reporter Jane Little

The Pope's controversial decision to beatify the late Croatian Archbishop, Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, comes after a long Vatican investigation into the merits of his case.

Pope John Paul has created a record number of saints during his 20-year reign, and the case of Cardinal Stepinac has highlighted a series of often provocative choices.

Under Pope John Paul nearly 300 Roman Catholics have been deemed to have shown "heroic virtue" during their lifetime.

He has "beatified" 800 more, putting them on the road to sainthood.

He has not shied away from controversy.

Political overtones

In 1992 he beatified Josemaria Escriva, the Spanish founder of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei - a movement widely viewed with suspicion as a secret society.

Most of his beatifications have had political overtones, and all reflect his ardent belief in giving a focus of devotion and a morale-boost to local churches.

But none have proved so provocative as Cardinal Stepinac. In this he has been seen to side with the Croatian people against the protests of Orthodox Serbs and Jews.

In a similar vein, the Vatican has long been considering beatifying the war-time Pope, Pius XII. Jewish groups question Pius's apparent unwillingness to speak out against the holocaust, and were dismayed that Pope John Paul defended his predecessor during his recent apology to the Jews.

Making amends to Jews

But in another loaded gesture, the pope will next week canonise the philosopher Edith Stein.

A Jewish convert to Christianity, she was killed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. Edith Stein will be the first Jewish-born woman to be made a saint.

Commentators suggest this is another step in the Vatican's policy of trying to make amends to Jews for the church's questionable record before and during the war.

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