by Viviane Hewitt in Rome and Peter Stanford OLD WAR wounds were this week reopened between Catholic Croats and Serbian Orthodox already at odds in Yugoslavia's bloody civil conflict with the announcement that a cardinal, convicted of collaboration with the Nazis, is to be posthumously pardoned.
The decision by the newly independent authorities in Zagreb to exonerate the late Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac reopened old disputes about the Catholic Church's complicity in the murder of thousands of Orthodox Serbs by the Ustase in the Nazi puppet state of Croatia. It also fuelled allegations by Serbian church and political leaders that their fellow Orthodox would not be safe in an independent and predominantly Catholic Croatia.
Recalling the persecution of fellow believers during the Nazi occupation, the leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church, in a worldwide letter appealing for help and support, said In the newly independent state of Croatia, as in the old one, there is no longer room for us".
Rome's decision last week to recognise Croatian and Slovenian secession from Yugoslavia was condemned by the Serbian
Orthodox patriarchate. "The origin of the conflicts in Yugoslavia, and not just in these regions, is the insistence of the Church of Rome in considering the Balkans, where most of the inhabitants are Orthodox faithful, a mission field". Those Orthodox remaining in Croatia only had two options, their leaders told the world in a the letter, broadcast by the Yugoslav news agency, Tanjug to take up arms or to go into exile.
The Serbian Orthodox leaders appealed to the heads of their Greek, Russian, Ukrainian and Bulgarian sister churches for spiritual support, further widening the gulf that has opened up with the Catholic Church in the wake of the liberation of eastern Europe.
Cardinal Stepinac, who died in 1960, was jailed for 16 years after the Second World War for colluding with Nazi pogroms in Croatia while he was archbishop of Zagreb.
He strenuously denied the charges, and in 1952 the Vatican elevated him to the cardinalate, breaking ties with Yugoslavia in protest.
Although communist leader Josip Tito subsequently released Cardinal Stepinac from prison and sent him into internal exile, and later allowed him to be buried in Zagreb Cathedral, to Orthodox Serbs the Catholic leader remains a war-criminal.
The cardinal's grave was visited last week by Italian President Francesco Cossiga, the first western leader to go to Croatia since its independence was recognised.
In announcing the decision to pardon Cardinal Stepinac, the deputy speaker of Croatia's parliament, Vladimir Seks, said the move "will bring historical satisfaction to the cardinal because his trial was a mockery of justice and truth and compromised the Catholic Church".
Meanwhile the federal government in Belgrade reacted angrily to the Vatican's recognition of Croatia and Slovenia as sovereign states. Rome was "interfering directly" in Yugoslavia's affairs, it said.
The Holy See responded by saying that its decision to back the two republics was in no way a hostile gesture to Yugoslavia and had only been taken after a lengthy list of conditions had been satisfied.
The criteria for Vatican recognition, which came two days before the European Community's recognition of Croatia and Slovenia, included respect for all the principles in the final act of the Helsinki Accords, Rome stressed. These deal with human rights and individual liberties, including religious freedoms.
Croatia's bishops reiterated the Vatican's statement in their first declaration since independence was formally recognised. Their new country, the hierarchy said, would work to establish peace, freedom and respect between different ethnic groups and creeds within its borders.
• This week a report compiled by international observers accused the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav federal army of deliberately targeting Catholic churches in its onslaught on Croatia.