Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croatia: Clerics Attack Government

The Vatican is being urged to dissuade Croatian clergy from undermining the Racan government
By Dragutin Hedl

European Union countries have urged the Vatican to put pressure on the Catholic Church in Croatia to moderate its opposition to the centre-left government of Stipe Mesic and Ivica Racan and withdraw support from right wing nationalists.


The Vatican has so far made no public comments about any nationalist activity by the clergy in Croatia. It enjoyed close ties with the former right wing government of Franjo Tudjman, who signed a concordat in 1997 with the Holy See.


The treaty was highly favourable to the clergy, exempting the Catholic Church from taxation on its revenue and raising the issue of returning Church property nationalised under Yugoslavia's communist government.


A possible compromise deal might involve Zagreb promising not to alter any of the terms of the Tudjman concordat in return for the Holy See cautioning the Croatian bishops to steer clear of politics and stop attacking government policies.


An opportune moment for such discussions will occur at the end of November, when the Croatian bishops are due to assemble in Rome and meet the Pope.


The EU ambassadors made their move early in October when they intervened with the Vatican to protect the government from attacks by Catholic representatives.


Diplomats told Jean-Louise Tuaran, the Vatican secretary for foreign relations, on his visit to Zagreb that the Croatian Church was siding entirely with the nationalist right and was largely supporting their campaign to unseat the government.


A section of the Church hierarchy in Croatia openly supports nationalist calls for an end to cooperation with The Hague tribunal, the suspension of war crimes trials in the domestic courts and the overthrow of what the right calls Racan's "anti-Croatian, traitorous and communist" government.


Not all the bishops share these views. Josip Bozanic, the Archbishop of Zagreb, is one of the few moderate Church leaders. However, he enjoys little influence with the rest of the ecclesiastical officials.


Some clerics are reported to have used their sermons and public statements to incite civil disobedience against the government. Others have gone further, even revealing sympathies with Croatia's pro-Nazi wartime government under Ante Pavelic, by holding requiem masses for the former dictator and styling him a Croatian independence fighter.


This is a dangerous development as the the influence of the Catholic Church on Croatian soclety is huge, especially in rural areas. But it is also growing in the cities, primarily as a result of the introduction of religious education lessons in schools at the beginning of the Nineties.


Following the EU's intervention, the Vatican will probably have to do something, as Rome has already announced that the Pope had responded favourably to an invitation from Prime Minister Racan and President Mesic to visit Croatia for the third time.


The Pope's visit to Croatia is expected to take place next year. To create the right climate for the visit, the Vatican is likely to start putting pressure on the bishops in Croatia to moderate their position, especially as elements in the centre-left government are talking of re-opening the concordat.


The country's economic crisis has fuelled criticism of the taxation clauses in the agreement. So far, the Racan government's moves to overhaul tax loopholes have not touched the rights the former government guaranteed to the Catholic Church. But some ministers openly criticise the concordat as unconstitutional.


Critics have condemned its favouritism of only one religious community, when the constitution guarantees equality for all citizens, regardless of their religious or racial background. In the last accurate census, held in 1991, 76 per cent of the population listed themselves as Catholics.


Goran Granic, deputy prime minister, said the agreements signed between Croatia and the Vatican had put the Catholic Church in a privileged position in comparison to the other religious communities.


At a time when a clean break is being made with so many policies of the old regime, the government clearly wants to put its relations with religious communities on a new footing.


This may mean downgrading ties with the Catholic Church and improving relations with other groups, especially the Serbian Orthodox Church, spiritual home of the country's largest minority community.


Dragutin Hedl, IWPR project editor in Croatia, is a journalist with Feral Tribune.