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Another Side of the Pope: John Paul II’s Balkan Legacy

April 9, 2005


By Carl Savich

What will be Pope John Paul II’s legacy? In the week between his death and funeral, the media have lionized him with candy-coated encomiums as a peace-loving pope who brought down Communism and ushered in the New World Order. His place in history is assured as a determined anti-Communist who revitalized the Roman Catholic Church. He will also be remembered as an energetic evangelist for his faith, traveling to over 120 countries during his reign.

Yet what kind of a role did the “peacemaker” Pope play in the recent Balkan conflicts? And, despite his many journeys and outreach to leaders of other faiths, why did John Paul II not seek to reconcile Orthodox Slavs and Roman Catholic Slavs in the Balkans? In the end, did the Pope only exacerbate religious tensions and animosity in the Balkans?

John Paul II: First to Recognize Croatia

In 1991, Pope John Paul II became the first to recognize Croatia as an independent state. Committed at a time when tensions were high and dialogue was called for, this act was needlessly reckless. It gave great prestige and legitimacy to the cause of Catholic Croatia, which the Pope championed for his own narrow religious goals. His recognition helped spark a tragic civil war that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Serbs and Croats. The premature and irresponsible recognition foreshadowed the carnage, killing, displacement and suffering in the former Yugoslavia.

“I am not a pacifist,” said John Paul II In 1991, in the context of the first Gulf War. A few years later, bolstered by his ‘just war’ rhetoric, he demanded of Bill Clinton and NATO to intervene in the Bosnian conflict, when Roman Catholic Croatian troops were being militarily defeated by Bosnian Muslim troops. Using the rationale that “‘the aggressor must be disarmed,” the Pope also incited the US to intervene militarily against the Bosnian Serbs to prevent the military defeat of Roman Catholic Croats in Bosnia. Of course, he has always veiled this intent behind the theology of the “duty” of the international community to intervene in cases of perceived genocide.

However, at the same time that he sought to protect the rights of Catholic Croats, Pope John Paul II was indifferent to the plight of the Serbian Orthodox population of Krajina. All he wanted was to recognize Croatia, a Roman Catholic state that worshipped the Vatican. He abjured negotiation, compromise, reconciliation. He was silent when Roman Catholic Croat troops, with NATO and US help, ethnically cleansed over 350,000 Krajina Serbs in 1995. This was the largest single act of ethnic cleansing during the Balkan conflict. The peace-loving Pope showed that he was a hypocrite.

Croatia was an obsession with Pope John Paul II. It was his Poland-next-door. He was determined to destroy the Yugoslav federation and socialism, as he had the Soviet Union. John Paul visited Croatia on three occasions: September 10-11, 1994; October 2-4, 1998; and, his 100th foreign visit, June 5-9, 2003. But on this last visit, a Bosnian Muslim sent him an e-mail threatening to kill him “in the name of Allah.”

The Pope: a Supporter of Holocaust-Denier Franjo Tudjman

The Pope’s behavior toward the Balkans becomes especially controversial in light of his treatment of morally corrupt leaders. He never criticized or condemned Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman, a known Holocaust denier and rabid anti-Semite.. It was Tudjman who had denied that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, maintaining instead that only 900,000 Jews were murdered. He also called Israelis “Judeo-Nazis” who were carrying out genocide against Palestinian Muslims. Tudjman also denied the World War II Croatian Ustasha genocide at Jasenovac, which he dismissed contemptuously as the “Jasenovac myth.”

Tudjman was a known racist who had plans to annex Bosnia-Hercegovina into a Greater Croatia. Yet John Paul II was silent about Tudjman. He visited Croatia in 1994 during the civil war, thereby giving moral support to the Tudjman regime in its efforts to ethnically cleanse the Krajina Serbs. The Pope had no sympathy for their rights or aspirations. All he ever cared about was the expansion of Roman Catholicism.

A Pope Who Beatified Backers of the Ustasha’s Genocidal Regime

On his second official papal visit to Croatia, Pope John Paul II made the shocking decision to beatify Croatian Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, a man who had supported the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Roma. In Roman Catholicism, beatification is the step prior to sainthood. The beatification occurred at a huge open-air ceremonyat the shrine of Marija Bistrica on October 3, 1998. This was meant as a slap in the face to all Orthodox Serbs. It would be like the Nobel Peace Committee awarding Adolf Eichmann a posthumous Nobel Prize for Peace. The action demonstrated his total and profound contempt for the Serbian people, for the Orthodox religion, and for the legacy of 60,000 Jews killed in Ustasha death camps.

The body of Stepinac is preserved and embalmed in a glass case in Zagreb. In beatifying Stepinac, the Pope ignored a request from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to await the results of an investigation into his role in genocide and the Holocaust during World War II, angering Jewish organizations in the process. But that didn’t deter the man who mass-produced more saints than any other pope in history, by lowering the requisite standards. All that mattered to the Pope was that Stepinac was anti-Communist. That Stepinac was also pro-fascist, pro-Ustasha, and pro-Nazi did not seem to bother the Pope at all; he was to be revered as a “martyr” in the conflict against Communism.

Who was Alojze Stepinac? Stepinac was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Zagreb during World War II. He welcomed the Nazi occupation and dismemberment of Yugoslavia in April, 1941, and supported the Ustasha regime of Ante Pavelic. The core around which the Ustasha movement was based was Roman Catholicism, and it was accordingly backed by Pope Pius XII, otherwise known as “Hitler’s Pope.” No matter about that – the BBC reported that, as with Stepinac, Pope John Paul II decided to put Pius XII “on the road to sainthood,” despite an outcry from Jewish groups.

The regime embarked on a campaign of genocide which resulted in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Croatian and Bosnian Serbs, along with Jews and Roma. Many of the massacres were organized and conducted by Croatian Roman Catholic priests. The largest concentration camp in the Balkans, Jasenovac, was commanded by a defrocked Roman Catholic priest, Miroslav Filipovic. How could a Roman Catholic priest engage in the torture and mass murder of Christians?

This is what is so troubling about the Roman Catholic Ustasha movement and the genocide it committed during the Holocaust. It is so troubling that Pope John Paul II censored and covered-up this genocide. He never even acknowledged or admitted it to himself. The Ustasha genocide was suppressed from his memory.

The Roman Catholic Ustasha genocide against Orthodox Serbs shocked, disgusted, and appalled even their Nazi minders themselves. Here is what Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the SD and Heinrich Himmler’s second-in-command in the SS, the person who organized the Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was organized, said about the Ustasha. In a February 17, 1942 letter to Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler, Heydrich wrote:

…The number of Slavs massacred by the Croats with the most sadistic of methods must be estimated at a count of 300,000…From this it is clear that the Croat-Serbian state of tension is not least of all a struggle of the Catholic Church against the Orthodox Church.

Stepinac himself revealed his contempt for Orthodoxy, and saw the Ustasha genocide as the “working of the divine hand.”

The Ustasha Roman Catholic priests were also determined to exterminate the Jewish population of the Balkans. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sarajevo, Ivan Saric, wrote an “Ode to Pavelic” in which he endorsed the genocide against Serbs and Jews:

…Against the Jews with all their money,

Who wanted to sell our souls,

Betray our names

These miserable ones.

You are the rock on which rests

Homeland and freedom in one

Protect our lives from hell,

From Marxism and Bolshevism.

On May 25, 1941, Roman Catholic priest Franjo Kralik wrote that the Final Solution against Croat Jews and Bosnian Jews was justified as an act of God:

…The movement for freeing the world from the Jews is a movement for the renaissance of human dignity. The Almighty and All-wise God is behind this movement.

A Roman Catholic priest from Udbina, Mate Mogus, even advocated genocide against Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Roma:

…Until now we have worked for the Catholic faith with the prayer book and with the cross. Now the time has come to work with rifle and revolver.

It is hard to comprehend how such a brand of Roman Catholicism can be said to be following the teachings of Jesus Christ. And this explains why it has been so meticulously censored, suppressed, and covered-up in the so-called West. And this is why Pope John Paul II never apologized for the genocide committed against Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Roma. Pope John Paul remained in denial and suppressed this well-documented genocide until the end.

Eleanor Roosevelt called the Ustasha genocide one of the worst crimes of World War II. Yet it is one of the greatest cover-ups of the 20th century. Mainstream historians in the West have always covered it up and suppressed it, and thus it remains one of the major falsifications of the history of the Balkans. And Pope John Paul II, though himself a Slav, did nothing to expose this massive cover-up.

Vatican and ultra-nationalist, neo-Ustasha Croatian propaganda portrays Stepinac as a “martyr” to Communism and as an innocent who protected Jews and Serbs. The Pope echoed this neo-Ustasha propaganda about Stepinac. According to the neo-Ustasha falsification of history, Stepinac was a good man, a rescuer of Serbs and Jews who should be deemed a Righteous Gentile according to the Yad Vashem.

This is a falsification of the facts. Stepinac not only supported Pavelic and the Ustasha Movement, but also Adolf Hitler and Nazism. In a January 1, 1942 quote in the Croatian Sentinel, Pavelic said: “Hitler is an envoy of God.” Stepinac was the first to welcome Ante Pavelic, the Ustasha, and the Nazis. He was the Supreme Vicar of the Ustasha Armed Forces.

He was a part of the Ustasha Parliament in Zagreb. He was photographed with high ranking Vatican officials, Nazi and Ustasha military officers, and even shaking hands with Ante Pavelic, who he admired as a true Roman Catholic believer. One person’s saint is another person’s war criminal. Nothing illustrates this better than the Stepinac case.

After World War II, Stepinac was arrested by the Communist regime and tried and convicted for his complicity in war crimes and mass murder. Of course, this trial is dismissed by neo-Ustasha propaganda and the official history as a Communist show trial meant to discredit Roman Catholicism. Stepinac served 5 years in prison as a convicted war criminal for complicity in genocide. He died in 1960 under house arrest.

Stepinac’s Yugoslav War Crimes Trial

The theory of command responsibility cited today by the Hague and international war crimes law experts was employed in the postwar trial of Archbishop Stepinac. He was found guilty according to this theory. A 1947 publication, The Trial of Stepinac, relates the findings of the Yugoslav War Crimes Commission. Here is what it says in this official Yugoslav Government report of the trial published in Washington, DC:

…Investigation by the Yugoslav War Crimes Commission established that Archbishop Stepinac had played a leading part in the conspiracy that lead to the conquest and breakup of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. It was furthermore established that Archbishop Stepinac played a role in governing the Nazi puppet Croatian state, that many members of his clergy participated actively in atrocities and mass murders, and, finally, that they collaborated with the enemy down to the last day of the Nazi rule, and continued after the liberation to conspire against the newly created Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia.

Here is the evidence they presented.

Before World War II, Roman Catholic societies were set up, such as the Crusaders or Krizari, organizations that fomented the fascist/Nazi ideology. Stepinac appointed its leaders. The Vatican acted as a liaison between Ante Pavelic and Croatian leaders before World War II. It was the Vatican that was giving refuge to Pavelic and preparing his possible takeover in Croatia. Stepinac obviously knew about all of this.

Roman Catholic priests became administrators in the Ustasha state. Stepinac was the Supreme Vicar of the Ustasha Army. Stepinac was also a member of the Ustasha Parliament or Sabor along with many other prominent Croat Roman Catholics. This made him a part of the Ustasha government or political leadership, and under command responsibility he can be held accountable for crimes committed by those under his authority.

Stepinac endorsed the Ustasha state. He called on its military leader, Slavko Kvaternik, and congratulated him on April 28, 1941, in a pastoral letter that asked the clergy “…to respond without hesitation to his call that they take part in the exalted work of defending and improving the Independent State of Croatia.”

As we have seen, prominent Roman Catholic priests in Croatia praised and supported the Ustasha, fascism, and Nazism. Official Roman Catholic publications were guilty of incitement to genocide. Stepinac was the top of this hierarchical ladder under command responsibility.

The Croat priests wanted to create a “clerical-fascist” state like the one established by Roman Catholic priest Josip Tiso in Slovakia, a Nazi puppet state run by a Roman Catholic priest and church. The Franciscans were militant sponsors of the Ustasha state. Roman Catholic priests under the Ustasha regime endorsed the Final Solution of Croat Jews. In Catholic media, they rationalized the Nazi position on Jews and approved of the Final Solution. Moreover, many Catholic priests took an active part in the mass murders of Serbs and Jews. The
y also incited Croat laymen to commit genocide. In his sermons, Priest Srecko Peric in Livno actually entreated his parishioners to “kill and massacre all Serbs.”

Stepinac took no action against these priests.

Further, on November 17, 1941, Archbishop Stepinac convened a Bishop’s Conference in Zagreb, “…at which the forcible conversion of Serbs was given canonical sanction.” Over 250,000 Orthodox Serbs in Croatia were in fact forcefully converted – something which for his supporters indicates the good archbishop’s benevolence!

Stepinac was also Supreme Vicar of the Ustasha Army, and was made so by order of the Vatican. In other words, not only was he part of the clerical and political leadership of the Ustasha regime, he was also a member of the military. Each Ustasha military unit had a Roman Catholic priest accompany it.

A huge number of Orthodox Serbs (estimates range from several hundred thousand to 750,000) and about 60,000 Jews were murdered under the Ustasha regime. Stepinac knew this crime was going on and actually sanctioned it, being one of the top leaders of the regime.

When Stepinac concluded that Hitler would lose the war, he began to take steps to make it appear as if he was against Pavelic and the Ustasha. But this was a joke. He continued to help Pavelic until the last days of the war.

The Vatican Expedites Nazi Escape

Following World War II, the Vatican helped many of the Croatian Ustasha war criminals to escape through underground routes and channels. Croatian Roman Catholic priest Krunoslav Draganovic organized the “ratline” that allowed Ustasha political leaders such as such as Ante Pavelic and Anrija Artukovic to flee.

The Pope has never acknowledged the role the Vatican played in allowing these Nazi collaborators to escape from the Balkans to Argentina and other countries in South America, despite the fact that the Vatican was later sued for laundering hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold and other items which the Ustasha regime had seized from murdered Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and Roma during World War II. The money was kept in the Swiss National Bank. The Vatican allegedly used the Ustasha gold to finance and organize the rat lines that allowed top Ustasha leaders to escape.

But the Pope never apologized for the role that Roman Catholic priests such as Alojize Stepinac and the Croatian Roman Catholic Church in general played in the Ustasha genocide committed in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina during World War II.

By beatifying a convicted war criminal, Pope John Paul II showed his utter contempt for the Serbian people. He exacerbated the animosity and conflict between Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians. He did not want reconciliation, but conquest. Pope John Paul did nothing to reconcile the Catholic and Orthodox communities in the Balkans. Indeed, he has made matters much worse. His legacy will be one of failure and deliberately missed opportunities.

The Pope’s Silence on Continuing Genocide Against Christians in Kosovo

Pope John Paul II remained silent about the continuing and ongoing genocide against Orthodox Serbian civilians in Kosovo-Metohija and in Krajina. Artemije, the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Raska and Prizren, lamented “…the inexplicable silence of Christian and democratic Europe in the face of such grave crimes committed against a Christian and European people.” In a December 16, 2003 L’Espresso article in Italy, Artemije accused the Vatican of having been “amply implicated in the events” in Kosovo.

Unlike in the later case of Iraq, the Pope did not condemn the illegal and criminal NATO bombing and occupation of Yugoslavia and Kosovo-Metohija in 1999. After a meeting with Yugoslav Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, he reportedly told Draskovic that all the destroyed church buildings and houses belonging to Serbs in Kosovo must be rebuilt. But that was about the extent of his concern or interest in Kosovo. He also promised Draskovic that he would read the book on the destruction of Orthodox churches in Kosovo, Crucified Kosovo.

Despite speaking loudly and clearly in support of Christians the world over, Pope John Paul II stood silently by while over 150 Serbian Orthodox Churches and cathedrals were looted, burned, demolished, desecrated, and destroyed by Albanian Muslims in ethnic attacks meant to eradicate the centuries-old presence of Serbian Christianity in Kosovo-Metohija. His silence was glaring. Where was the condemnation of the March 2004 “pogrom” or “Kristallnacht” in Kosovo, where over 35 Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed and demolished and Serbian Christians were brutally murdered?


Pope John Paul II will be remembered as the Pope who helped spark the carnage and killing and displacement of the Balkan conflicts. By recognizing Croatia, he started the ball rolling that resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people. It was his act of recklessly and arrogantly recognizing Croatia that was partly to blame for the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. He could have chosen the path of negotiation, rapprochement and reconciliation that many world leaders were counseling at the time. Instead, he chose confrontation and conflict. He chose something that he must have known would lead to war.

Diplomatic recognition is a matter appropriate to the political. The Pope should have focused on religion, not politics. Like Alojze Stepinac before him, he chose politics and Croatian nationalism over religion. He contributed greatly to the wars that destroyed and dismembered Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

In the West, of course, the Pope will be remembered as the man who brought down Communism, while traveling relentlessly and providing interfaith outreach on a scale not seen by any previous pope. But his legacy will be remembered differently in the Balkans. He failed to acknowledge the Roman Catholic role in the Ustasha genocide of World War II. He failed to take a stand on the continuing and ongoing genocide of Orthodox Christians in Kosovo-Metohija.

He had an opportunity to use his enormous stature and respect in the eyes of the world to make a difference for peace, but he chose not to do so. In the end, he only exacerbated the historic conflict between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. He made matters worse. In the Balkans at least, his legacy will be one of failure.

Partial Bibliography

Braham, Randolph. The Vatican and the Holocaust. NY: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Cornwell, John. Hitler’s Pope. NY: Viking Penguin, 1999.

Dedijer, Vladimir. The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican. NY: Prometheus, 1988.

Manhattan, Avro. The Vatican’s Holocaust. Springfield, MO: Ozark Books, 1986.

Ibid, Vatican Imperialism in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1965.

Paris, Edmond. Genocide in Satellite Croatia. Chicago: American Institute, 1961.

Yugoslav Embassy. The Case of Archbishop Stepinac. Washington, DC: Yugoslav Embassy, 1947.

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