ROMAN CATHOLIC bishops in Croatia have accused the Serbian Orthodox Church of spreading “communist propaganda”, after the Orthodox Church canonised a group of children allegedly killed by RCs during the Second World War.
“No one has a right to overlook the pain of these children — but no one has a right to use their tragedy for narrow goals far from any compassion or commitment to justice,” bishops of the archdiocese of Zagreb, in Serbia, told the Patriarch Porfirije of Serbia in an open letter.
“It is especially painful to see the continuation of ideological propaganda from the period of Yugoslav Communist totalitarianism, in which doctors, medical staff, and nuns, as well as benefactors and foster parents, are portrayed as the worst criminals.”
The letter, co-signed by Cardinal Josip Bozanić, was sent after the assignment by the Orthodox Holy Synod of a feast day in honour of seven “holy martyr children”, who died in concentration camps at Jastrebarsko and Sisak.
The letter said that Bishop Gerasim (Popović) of Gornji Karlovac had submitted material on the “terrible and unprecedented torture of innocent children” at camps under the management of RC priests and nuns. It had not provided documentary evidence or properly identify the perpetrators.
Attempts had been made, the letter said, to implicate the wartime RC Archbishop of Zagreb, Alojzije Stepinac, with “tendentious descriptions and negative undertones.
“We have the impression that the Serbian Orthodox Church has accepted communist rhetoric full of untruths and manipulations, seeking to blame innocent people for allegedly torturing and killing children,” the Croatian bishops wrote.
“In reality, thousands were saved from death thanks to the love and care of Croatian Catholics.”
Relations between the Serbian and Croatian Churches have long been tense over both the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma under Croatia’s Nazi-aligned wartime regime, headed by Ante Pavelic’s Ustasha movement, and the part played by Stepinac, who was later sentenced to 16 years’ hard labour for collaboration in war crimes by a Communist court. He was created a cardinal in 1953 by Pope Pius XII.
Although Cardinal Stepinac was beatified in 1998, a process for his canonisation was suspended by Pope Francis in 2016 pending the resolution of disagreements over his case by Croatian and Serbian historians.
No mention was made of the controversy over the “holy-martyr children” by Patriarch Porfirije during a homily in the Orthodox cathedral in Zagreb, at the weekend.
The Serbian Interior Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, however, rejected the Croatian bishops’ letter, accusing them of refusing “to allow a place among the saints for slaughtered Serbian children”.
A Serbian MP representing the interests of Serbs expelled from Croatia during the Balkan War of 1991-95 branded the letter a “shameless lie”. He said that the death of at least 2300 Orthodox children at Jastrebarsko and Sisak had been established by “many reports and documents”.
The MP, Miodrag Linta, a historian from Karlovac, said in a statement: “The bishops scandalously claim that these were shelters where nuns allegedly treated children and helped them survive.
“This continues a longstanding campaign by followers of the Ustasha ideology, aimed at completely revising history, at denying the genocide committed against the Serbian people, and at canonising the war criminal Alojzije Stepinac.”
A special service to commemorate war orphans was held at the Jastrebarsko camp last Friday.