“They were very vicious. They were considered worse than the Nazis in their persecution of Jews, of Serbs, of anyone who got in their way,” said Rychlak, a professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law.
Pope St. John Paul II beatified Cardinal Stepinac as a martyr in October 1998. His cause for canonization is still pending, but Pope Francis has arranged a special commission of Catholic and Orthodox leaders to explore his wartime record.
Many in the Serbian Orthodox community are deeply skeptical of the cardinal’s wartime record. For Rychlak, however, the historical record is on the cardinal’s side.
Pavelic, the Ustashe head, called himself a Catholic. The Ustashe claimed a Catholic background, and forcibly converted many people to Catholicism. The future cardinal initially cooperated with the government, but was not silent in the face of its crimes.
“Stepinac’s sermons against the Ustashe were so strong. They prohibited them from being published, because they were so strong against the Ustashe,” Rychlak said.
His words were secretly printed and circulated and occasionally broadcast over the radio.
“There’s a great story about a Nazi officer who came to Zagreb and he heard Stepinac preach,” Rychlak recounted. The archbishop condemned the Ustashe’s actions so strongly, the general said “If a churchman in Germany spoke like that, he would not step down from the pulpit alive.”
He severely condemned the Ustashe’s destruction of Zagreb’s main synagogue in 1941.
“A House of God, of whatever religion, is a holy place,” he said. “An attack on a House of God of any religion constitutes an attack on all religious communities.”
In October 1943 homily, the archbishop condemned notions of racial superiority.
“The Catholic Church knows nothing of races born to rule and born to slavery,” he said. “The Catholic Church knows races and nations only as creatures of God.”
The Ustashe lost control to Marshal Tito’s communists partisans, who had used Stepinac’s anti-Ustashe comments in their propaganda. Yugoslavia’s communists then turned on Archbishop Stepinac.
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In 1946, Stepinac was put on trial for allegedly collaborating with the Ustashe’s crimes. The trial drew critical coverage from Western media like Time and Newsweek and protests from those who saw it as a show trial.
Among the trial’s critics was the American Jewish community leader Louis Breier, who organized protests in New York City in support of the archbishop.
Archbishop Stepinac was denied effective representation and only met with his attorney for an hour before the trial. The government’s witnesses were told what to say, and the archbishop was not allowed to cross-examine them.
What you have is a false narrative created by Soviet agents.
He was sentenced to hard labor, but after a global outcry his sentence was reduced to house arrest.
“Nevertheless, it becomes the public record that he was convicted of collaboration,” Rychlak said.