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Saturday, October 3, 1998 Published at 20:15 GMT 21:15 UK

World: Europe

Stepinac: Hero or collaborator?

A massive painting of Cardinal Stepinac watches the Pope pray

Supporters say he was a hero who spoke out against Croatia's fascist leaders in World War II and refused to bow to Communism after the war.

[ image: Cardinal Stepinac's embalmed body]
Cardinal Stepinac's embalmed body
Detractors say he failed to stop crimes by the Nazi-backed Croatian regime, such as the deportation of Jews and forced conversion of Serbs.

History records that, in 1941, while Archbishop of Zagreb, Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac supported Croatia's Nazi-backed government.

But by the following year he was making speeches against the regime's genocidal policies, which led to the deaths of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and Croat opponents.

At one mass in 1942 he said: "All nations and races are from the God and they all have a right to live.

"That is why the Croatian church has always condemned injustice and violence committed in the name of class, racist or ethnic theories."

Critics say his condemnation was not public enough or strong enough.

Jail under Communism

In 1946 Cardinal Stepinac fell foul of the Communist rulers of the new Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was a part.

In a trial that Catholics maintain was a farce, he was convicted of collaborating with the Nazis.

He was still under house arrest 14 years later when, aged 62, he died. Mystery continues to surround his death with many Croatian Catholics believing he was murdered.

Tales of murder

In 1993, an autopsy ordered by a special Church commission showed the cardinal suffered from thrombosis, a potentially fatal clotting of the blood.

But the Croatian Catholic press reported that toxic levels of cadmium, chromium, lead and arsenic were also found in the bones. It also said the cardinal's internal organs were removed and destroyed by the Yugoslav secret service.

It was only in 1991, when Croatia broke away from Yugoslavia, that the rehabilitation of Cardinal Stepinac began.

The country's new rulers hailed him a national hero, although many Serbs still consider him a war criminal.

Now the Cardinal, who was born in Krasic, Croatia, the fifth of eight children, is just one step away from sainthood.

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