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Croatia: Priests Flex Their Muscles

The church's growing hold on politics was recently underlined when it stopped one of its critics taking up a government post.
By Goran Vezic

The Catholic Church in Croatia has prevented an anti-clerical historian from becoming science minister, in its boldest intervention in politics in recent years.


Under clerical pressure, Professor Neven Budak decided ten days ago not to accept an offer to join Prime Minister Ivica Racan's newly formed administration.


Budak had upset the archbishops by attacking the agreement between the Croatian state and the Vatican, exempting the church from paying tax. He also opposed the teaching of religion in kindergartens and objected to the appointment of Catholic Professor Tomislav Ivancic as rector of Zagreb University.


In a country where 88 per cent of the people are Catholics, Racan feared that a nationwide broadside of hostile church sermons could damage his Social Democrat Party, the SDP, the largest member of the ruling coalition.


Racan gave the science ministry instead to Gvozden Flego, a philosopher and indologist who is close to the SDP without being a member and has not been known to air any awkward views on the church.


It was the boldest clerical intervention in state affairs since the rule of the late Franjo Tudjman whose ultra-nationalist Croatian Democratic Community, HDZ, was backed by the church.


The incident raised fears over clerical influence on Croatian politics. Many analysts believe the intervention was a major threat to democracy in a country whose government has pledged to attain European political standards.


The SDP's most important coalition partner, the Croatian Peasant Party, HSS, and its president Zlatko Tomcic, now parliamentary speaker, vehemently opposed the appointment of Budak, arguing the church was strongly against it.


In the years between the wars, the HSS, oldest of all Croatian parties, opposed clerical influence in politics. Now, said Vuskovic, the party has broken with its tradition and swung round behind the church.


The clergy played a key role in the HDZ rise to power during the Nineties by promoting it from the pulpit. Undoubtedly, the church considerably influenced the outcome of the 1990 Croatian referendum by giving direct support for independence.


But over the next ten years, bitter differences broke out between the church and the HDZ. On the eve of the 2000 parliamentary elections, Josip Bozanic, Zagreb archbishop and chairman of Croatian Bishops' Conference, criticised the party's policies and saw its support nosedive among Catholics.


Zagreb analysts believe that Racan and the SDP, aware of their communist past, fear that a backlash from the Catholic Church might cost them dear.


"Croatia has a government suffering from lack of national self-confidence, a government which perceives itself as insufficiently patriotic, which is why its members are so eager to present themselves as good Croats," said Zarko Puhovski, a philosopher and chairman of the Croatian Helsinki Committee.


"Members of the government are acting as if they are guilty of something. Hence, in their efforts to present themselves as good Croats, they seek to ingratiate themselves with the church to an even larger extent than Tudjman's HDZ."


Puhovski said no party dared stand up to the Catholic hierarchy because they knew it would spell doom in any elections. Priests and the Catholic press are all too ready to mount orchestrated campaigns capable of wrecking political careers.


Srdjan Vrcan, a sociologist specialising in religion, said the church returned to public life in Croatia in the Nineties following the downfall of communism. He said the HDZ and the ecclesiastical authorities had a mutual interest in working together, with each seeing the other as a useful means of improving their popular support.


The influence of the church in Croatia has been steadily rising for ten years - the 2001 census showed the proportion of Catholics in the population had increased by 11 per cent since 1991.


Following the rise of a reformist centre-left coalition to power, the church again opted to side with the nationalist right-wing parties. A part of the clergy openly opposes cooperation with The Hague. They would also like to see the suspension of war crimes trials in local courts and they publicly label the Racan's government as "anti-Croat, treacherous and communist".


Early this year, Archbishop Marin Barisic of Split and Makarska publicly voiced his support for seven Croat soldiers who went on hunger strike in protest against charges of having committed war crimes against civilians and prisoners of war in Split's Lora military prison in 1992.


Backing for war crime suspects from some sections of the church is believed to go beyond mere moral support. It is widely suspected that clerics are helping to hide Ante Gotovina, a former general on the run from The Hague tribunal.


The Gotovina case and clerical support for suspected war criminals in general is putting the government under serious strain. It is keen on maintaining good relations with The Hague - as a means of promoting the country's international image - but knows that this could lose it domestic support.


Goran Vezic is a journalist with the Split-based Stina news agency.


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