Pope Benedict is visiting Croatia this weekend. He didn’t even wait for his plane to touch down before treating us to another roll-your-eyes remark. Chatting with reporters about Croatia’s application to join the European Union, Benedict said “One can understand there is perhaps a fear of an overly strong centralized bureaucracy … .” So we have the head of the Vatican criticizing an “overly strong centralized bureaucracy”? That’s like Lady Gaga criticizing someone for being overly flashy …
Benedict went on to complain about Europe’s “rationalistic culture that doesn’t sufficiently take into account the history – the richness of history and the richness of the diverse history” that Croatia offers. Here he ventures onto dangerous ground, because the Catholic history of Croatia is not something worth boasting about.
At the end of World War I, the southern portion of the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Croatia and Serbia, was formed into a new country called Yugoslavia, the Land of the Southern Slavs. Some Croatian politicians, who had wanted a country they could control, chafed under the new arrangement. They quoted 19th century politician Ante Starčević, who is now considered the father of Croatia: “The Serbs are a breed fit only for the slaughter house.”
The antagonism between Serbs and Croats went back nearly a thousand years, to the “Great Schism” between the church leadership at Constantinople and the church leadership at Rome. The theological substance of the Great Schism was absurd; what was really at stake was political control over the richest institution in Europe. On the geographic frontier of that Schism lay what is today the border between Serbia and Croatia: the Serbs were Eastern Orthodox, the Croatians Roman Catholic. There had been no history of antagonism between the peoples on either side of the line beforehand, but there was plenty of it afterwards. Wars were fought; tens of thousands died. A whole Crusade, whose participants signed on to rescue the Holy Land from the Muslims, was diverted instead to Constantinople to plunder the Eastern Orthodox riches.
Multi-religious Yugoslavia was formed despite the vigorous lobbying of the Vatican, which at the 1919 Versailles Conference had pressed for an independent, Catholic-dominated Croatia. The new multi-religious Yugoslav government tried to get along with the Vatican, going so far as to sign an agreement to pay for Church properties nationalized 150 years earlier, which even the Catholic monarchy of Austria-Hungary had refused to do. Nonetheless, militant Catholic Croatians formed a terrorist organization called the Ustashi, which among other endeavors assassinated the king of Yugoslavia in 1934.
After World War II broke out in 1939, Pope Pius XII began calling Croatia “the outpost of Christianity,” implying that those who lay beyond the “outpost” – the Serbian Orthodox – were not even Christians. “The hope of a better future seems to be smiling on you,” he added, “a future in which the relations between Church and State in your country will be regulated in harmonious action to the advantage of both.”
He got that right. The Ustashi and the Nazis quickly formed a natural alliance, and after assisting in the German conquest of Yugoslavia the Ustashi was duly rewarded with control of an independent Croatia under the leadership of Ante Pavelic, mastermind of the 1934 assassination. The Catholic press was overjoyed: “God, who directs the destiny of nations and controls the hearts of kings, has given us Ante Pavelic and moved the leader of a friendly and allied people, Adolf Hitler, to use his victorious troops to disperse our oppressors and enable us to create an Independent State of Croatia. Glory be to God, our gratitude to Adolf Hitler, and infinite loyalty to our Poglavnik [Führer], Ante Pavelic.” The newspaper of the Archbishop of Sarajevo added:
Until now, God spoke through papal encyclicals. And? They closed their ears . . . Now God has decided to use other methods. He will prepare missions. European missions. World missions. They will be upheld, not by priests, but by army commanders. The sermons will be heard, with the help of cannons, machine guns, tanks, and bombers.
The new “Independent State of Croatia” was first announced from the pulpit of Archbishop Stepinac of Zagreb. This was appropriate because of the close intertwining of the Church and the state, which adopted Catholicism as the state religion. The goal of the partnership was announced by Zagreb Radio on July 29, 1941: “In the Independent State of Croatia there are no Serbs and no so-called Serbian Orthodox Church … There can be no Serbs or Orthodoxy in Croatia, the Croats will see to it that this is made true as soon as possible.”
In close cooperation, the Franciscan order and the Ustashi embarked on a crash “convert or die” campaign against the country’s Orthodox minority. Archbishop Stepinac of Zagreb, who welcomed the return of the assassin Pavelic and served in his government assembly, preached that “Schism is the greatest of evils in Europe, almost greater than Protestantism. In it there is no moral, no principle, no truth, no justice, and no honesty.” The Archbishop of Djakovo pressed to end the Schism at once:
Up until now I have received into the fold of the Catholic Church several dozens of thousands of Serbian Orthodox. Follow the example of these brothers of yours, and send, without further delay, your request for your prompt conversion to Catholicism. By being converted to the Catholic Church you will be left in peace in your homes.
Hundreds of thousands of Orthodox did not convert “without further delay,” though, and thus were not left in peace in their homes. Ustashi Education Minister Budnak announced that “We shall kill one part of the Serbs, we shall transport another, and the rest of them will be forced to embrace the Roman Catholic religion.” Mass slaughter ensued, often under the exuberant leadership of the Franciscans. Father Dionis Juricev boasted that:
I have succeeded in cleansing other regions and have rid them of everyone, from infants to old men, and if it is necessary I shall do the same thing here. It is no longer considered a sin to kill a child of seven if he interferes with the Ustashi law and order. Although I wear the robes of a priest, I am often obliged to resort to the machine gun, and the minute anyone is against the state or the Ustashi who are in power, I make good use of it, right down to the cradle.
Even the Nazis were appalled by the Catholic brutality. German General Lothar Rendulic estimated that the “beastly persecution of the Orthodox” took over half a million lives – about an eighth of the entire population. A Berlin newspaper criticized Germany’s own staunchest ally in 1944:
An extraordinary ecclesiastical struggle is going on in Croatia. The Ustashi Government is persecuting the Orthodox Church and is trying to convert as many Orthodox people as possible to Catholicism by means of intimidation and all kinds of devices. At the opening of the so-called Croat Assembly, Pavelic said that religious freedom did exist in principle, but that it did not include the Orthodox Church.
Archbishop Stepinac did nothing to rein his clergy in, whining that “We cannot be held responsible for some of the dare-devil fanatics in the ecclesiastical ranks.” Pope Benedict today will make a public spectacle of praying at Stepinac’s tomb.
According to United States government reports, after the war, the Vatican became the proud possessor of all the wealth stolen from the half a million murdered Orthodox – the Fourth Crusade, redux. It used part of this money to organize the “ratlines” enabling the Ustashi leaders to escape to Catholic Spain and Argentina. The butcher Ante Pavelic lived comfortably in Madrid until he died in 1959. Lawsuits seeking recovery of the stolen property have been dismissed, solely due to the absurd fiction that the Vatican is a “sovereign nation” that cannot be sued.
The Bible says that God punishes the children of sinners to the third and fourth generation. Humanists don’t do that. Still we must never forget, or ignore, the crimes committed by the God experts, because those experts and their ways of thinking are still with us today.
[Ustashi pictures from Reformation Online]