Influential clerics within the Croatian Catholic Church remain among the fiercest opponents of cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal.


Influential clerics within the Croatian Catholic Church remain among the fiercest opponents of cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal.

Saturday, 24 November, 2001

Croatia: Church Radicals Denounce Hague

Relations between Croatia's Catholic Church and the government reached their lowest ever ebb earlier this month following a further foray by clerics into the political arena.

In early November, the Croatian Bishops' Conference issued a proclamation decrying the "social situation" in the country. It was a clear and fierce attack on the five-member coalition government led by Ivica Racan.

The government rejected the bishops' criticisms, claiming they mirrored those of radical nationalist groups. Although the proclamation made no direct reference to The Hague tribunal, the government took the view that the Church's attack stemmed at least in part from the administration's policy of cooperation with that body.

Earlier this year, some of the Catholic bishops gave unequivocal support to those seeking to prevent the extradition of General Ante Gotovina, wanted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague for his alleged part in crimes committed following Operation Storm in 1995.

During large-scale protests against Gotovina's extradition, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Bishops' Conference openly accused the authorities of indulging "third rate clerks" - an apparent reference to The Hague officials - and creating "a rupture within the Croatian national being".

The commission said the divisions were a direct result of the government's attitude to the so-called Fatherland War - in other words its preparedness to handover the heroes of that war to a foreign court.

Bishop Juraj Jezerinac, responsible for cooperation between the church and the Croatian army, appeared at promotional events for a book by Nenad Ivankovic glorifying Gotovina. He also visited General Mirko Norac, currently in detention in Rijeka pending trial at the tribunal for alleged crimes against Serb civilians in Gospic in 1991.

The Archbishop of Split, Marin Barisic, demonstrated his solidarity with Norac by visiting his family.

Most outspoken of all, however, was Mile Bogovic, Bishop of Gospic. "Those who undermine the former president (Franjo Tudjman), generals and Croatia's defenders are removing the pillars on which the Croatian state stands. The authorities should be careful not to find their chairs hanging up in the air!" he exclaimed for the press, shortly after Norac was arrested.

Father Ante Bakovic claimed the country stood to lose more by extraditing indictees than from threatened UN sanctions if they did not cooperate with the tribunal. "What do we stand to lose by having sanctions? Nothing. What did the Serbs, China and Iraq lose? Nothing, they live freely, nicely and are prospering," Father Bakovic declared in his newspaper, Narod (People), in 1999.

Nevertheless, the Church is not unified in its intransigent opposition to cooperation with the tribunal.

Earlier this summer, Josip Bozanic, Archbishop of Zagreb and chairman of the Bishops' Conference, said during a conversation with Croatian foreign minister Tonino Picula that he understood the government's decisions regarding the tribunal. But the archbishop's influence is not sufficient to silence his more radical colleagues.

Lower ranks within the clergy also openly oppose the tough stance of the radical bishops.

Father Ivan Grubisic, a well-known theologian and priest in Split, told the daily Jutarnji list this month, "The Church should be the last institution to question constitutional law on cooperation with The Hague tribunal and the Croatian state's international obligations. The Church should respect the autonomy of the political community and its institutions, and not preach to them in a condescending manner".

But such voices are rare and are all too frequently drowned out by the opponents of cooperation. The most influential sections of the Catholic Church in Croatia continue to advocate the nationalist policies of the Tudjman era.

The Church was notified of crimes committed by Croats during the war. Ivan Zvonimir Cicak, one of the biggest Croatian campaigners for human rights and a one time president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, personally alerted Cardinal Franjo Kuharic (the leading Church representative during the war) with the murder and burning of houses by a part of the Croatian army after the operation Storm in August 1995.

In the Croatian Helsinki statement issued shortly afterwards, Cicak claimed that no one in the Church leadership voiced condemnation of those acts.

The Church has never distanced itself from the fascist Ustashe crimes of World War Two. Every year priest Vjekoslav Lasic celebrates the life of Ante Pavelic, the Ustashe leader, and his role in creating the puppet Independent State of Croatia (1941-1945) at a special mass on the anniversary of his death.

Given the continued influence of the Church, such attitudes present a considerable barrier to the government in its efforts to shake off Tudjman's legacy, not least the reluctance of many to face up to war crimes. For ten years, the then president and his government denied crimes had been committed, failed to punish those responsible and refused international appeals to bring the culprits to justice.

As a result, Croatia existed in almost total international isolation until, in January 2000, the Croatian Democratic Union founded by Tudjman lost power and government passed to a left-of-centre coalition prepared to face up to its international obligations.

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

Support our journalists