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Letter from the Bishops of the Croatian Conference of Bishops to Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej

Zagreb (IKA)

It is public knowledge that on November 18, 2018, the Croatian Catholic bishops sent Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej a letter, the content of which was not published. There has been some speculation in certain journalistic circles. In order to avoid conjectures, misinterpretations or untruths, the Croatian Conference of Bishops is hereby publishing said letter in its entirety:



No.: 413 /2018

Zagreb, November 18, 2018

His Holiness Irinej

Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church



Your Holiness!

In recent times, especially last year after the Mixed Commission of the Croatian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Serbian Orthodox Church, which had the joint task of examining the character of Blessed Alojzije Stepinac before, during and after the Second World War, completed its task, there have been frequent statements and reproaches in the public appearances and the media by the highest representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church directed at the Catholic Church and bishops in the Republic of Croatia, among which your words have particular weight. With this letter, the Croatian Conference of Bishops wishes to express its attitude toward them to you, with good intentions and respect.

1. Your Holiness has publically repeated several times that the [Catholic] bishops in Croatia remain silent. At the Chirotonia of the Serbian Orthodox Bishop Nikodim Kosović of Dalmatia (October 1, 2017), in the presence of the Catholic Archbishop of Split-Makarska, Msgr. Marin Barišić, and the Bishop of Šibenik, Msgr. Tomislav Rogić, you said that you expect from brother Catholics “first of all from the representatives of the Church, to hear a word of evangelization, a word of peace, a word of love, to hear a word that we are first of all Christians and as such at least to show love and appreciation toward each other.” In your television interview on the program Hram (January 3, 2018), you said that you are “surprised by the silence of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church in Croatia is silent. And today many distressing events are occurring. The Church is silent.” You pointed out that “the Church, which to a great extent contributed to the former relations, [should] raise its voice in the interest of truth, justice and the common faith.”

At the Sixty-Second International Belgrade Book Fair (October 24, 2017), speaking about the sufferings of the Serbian nation during the twentieth century, you stated that it is most tragic that they came “in part from the Muslims but much more from our brother Roman Catholics.” You added: “Our Church has waited for so many years to hear a word of contrition and apology from our brother Roman Catholics, and we have never heard this word. We probably shall not hear it. And what especially causes us great torment is that many ideas from the past are still present today in these nations. (…) A nation that creates history on a crime, on the blood of another nation, that nation has no future.”

In your homily (August 4, 2018) in Bačka Palanka on the occasion of the anniversary of the military-police Operation Storm, among other things you said: “Today, after two decades, we ask ourselves what led and motivated that [Croatian] nation to raise their hands against their brothers, the brothers who shared this region and blessed land so many long years. What kind of force motivated them and was there any other force that could have restrained and disabled it? There was. That was the institution of the Church, which was the only thing capable of stopping that chasm, that evil which surprised not only our people but all the people of the world, especially Christian nations. And if there was anyone who failed, and anyone who could have stopped this evil, it was the Church. (…) The Church that had been called to spread love, a nation who reads the Gospels, a nation who prays to God and the same Savior, forgot to whom they belonged and placed themselves completely on the other side, which can never be justified by any means. A terrible tragedy, the hatred that began in the past and continued during the time of the so-called Operation Storm, and tragically is also present today.”

During your visit to Montenegro in July of this year, when asked by a journalist to which historical epoch you would compare the position of Serbs in Montenegro today, in an interview with the Podgora daily newspaper Dan (July 23, 2018), you responded: “I should compare it with the position of Serbs in Croatia during the period of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH). Unfortunately, even today the position of Serbs in Croatia is no better.”

Immediately after the Mixed Commission of Croatian Catholic and Serbian Orthodox Experts on Blessed Alojzije Stepinac completed their task, all the Serbian members of the commission signed a public statement on July 16, 2017, in which they polemicize with the Belgrade newspaper Večernje novosti and make remarks with insulting connotations about the Zagreb Cathedral Chapter (Kaptol), recognizing “the conductor’s baton from Kaptol” in a text that appeared in said Serbian newspaper because it had published the Croatian translation of the Final Statement by the Mixed Commission, accusing the translator of intentional inaccuracies. In a statement dated July 18, 2017, the spokesman for the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Irinej of Bačka, continued the polemic against said newspaper, calling its writing “Kaptol commentaries from Zagreb” and expressing his position using a vocabulary that was not exactly mild: “I should not like to deal with them here although I know them very well and I have listened to them and read [their writings] hundreds of times, the content of which I know practically from memory. All in all, it is cheerleading, servile, I should say more succinctly, pro-Kaptol and anti-Patriarchal.”

Bishop Irinej of Bačka did not mince words on other occasions either when he spoke about the [Catholic] Church and bishops in Croatia. As the spokesperson of the Serbian Orthodox Church, he made particularly serious accusations in the Press Release by the Holy Synod of the Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church from the Regular Session Held in the Patriarchate of Peć and Belgrade from April 29 to May 10, 2018, as follows: “It was also noted that relations with the Roman Catholic Church, Churches of the Reformation and ecumenical organizations are correct and constructive, which, unfortunately, is not the case concerning relations with the Croatian Conference of [Catholic] Bishops, in which, besides well-intentioned bishops who act in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, there are, unfortunately, a good number of bishops whose orientation is openly pro-Ustasha and whose rhetoric is Ustashoid. The Synod hopes that the former will have a greater influence upon the Croatian Roman Catholic faithful than the latter.”

2. Your Holiness! We ask ourselves what could be the objective and meaning of the allegations that in the Catholic Church in Croatia and its pastors there is virtually no good but only evil. Not so long ago, we heard similar assessments of the Vatican and Pope. However, today we hear praise for Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church but reproaches for the [Catholic] bishops and Church in Croatia. In an interview published in Jutarnji list (January 7, 2017), you mention somewhat ironically that the Serbian Orthodox bishops apparently respect the authority of the Bishop of Rome more than some individual Croatian Catholic bishops. We find it strange that the head of a local Orthodox Church would publically contrast the bishops of the Catholic Church in Croatia with Pope Francis, reprove them and attribute crimes to that entire Church and the entire Croatian nation. For crimes, in the Croatian nation as well as the Serbian nation and in other nations, the guilty are individuals with first names and last names, and they are held responsible for what they have done.

We fail to understand the intention of the Press Release from the most recent session of the Holy Synod of the Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church when it publically classifie the Croatian bishops according to those who are well-intentioned and act according to the Second Vatican Council and those who do not, labelling most of them as people of “unconcealed pro-Ustasha orientation and Ustashoid rhetoric,” without explaining the basis for considering them as such. In an interview of June 20, 2018, for Politika, Bishop Irinej of Bačka repeated the assertion that there were correct relations with the Roman Catholic Church as a whole but not with the bishops of the Croatian Conference of Bishops, “with honorable and praiseworthy exceptions,” or to a significant extent in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who “seem not to have read the statements and declarations published by their own Supreme Pontiff together with Orthodox patriarchs, or other statements and texts by Pope Francis.” We should like to know the reasons for the concern expressed by Your Holiness and Bishop Irinej of Bačka in regards to the attitude of the Croatian Bishops toward Pope Francis. Our bond with the Bishop of Rome is founded on the belief of the Catholic Church that the Pope is the successor of Saint Peter, the head of the college of bishops, the pastor of the Universal Church, who presides over the community in love, and in that spirit we constantly express our full confidence and profound respect, and accept his magisterium in faithful obedience. With regard to the relationship between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia, we believe that it should be graced with the following evangelical principle: “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother” (Mt 18:15‒16). In judgments of others, the starting point should be the argument of truth, which should be explained “with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear” (1 Pt 3:16), and forgiveness of eventual insults “up to seventy times seven times” (Mt 18:22).

With the aforementioned negatavistic public mode of communication, it is not possible to resolve any problem or issue. Such an approach provokes resistance in the Croatian society to appearances by Your Holiness, provokes distrust of your person, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian citizens in Croatia, deepening wounds from wartime that have still not healed and promoting hatred. Attacks that do not reflect any compassion for the victims of the suffering caused from the Serbian side are particularly hurtful to those Croatian people who during the recent Homeland War were expelled from their homes in the territory of the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially the Banja Luka region, where there had been no warfare but three priests were killed. In the year 1991, there were 536,000 displaced persons and refugees in Croatia, while in 1992 there were approximately 800,000 from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, i.e., Serbia, Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro. Their houses were destroyed for the most part, many of their relatives were killed and many were driven into Serbian concentration camps. During this period, the displaced persons included a current Croatian bishop, who as a pastor, with a bag in his hand, fled together with the faithful from their parish before the approaching Serbian forces. A certain number of other priests and religious also ended up in Serbian camps, and one priest was killed. During the Homeland War in Croatia, according to what is currently known, there were 15,007 casualties, of whom 13,914 were killed and 1,093 were missing. Over 1,300 objects belonging to the Catholic Church and other holy places were destroyed or severely damaged. The aforementioned facts raise questions to which we all owe responses to the truth and justice. A fundamental question that all of us must ask is whether what we say about others is true and morally correct. Are we remaining silent about part of the truth? Have we perhaps become “judges who render upside-down decisions” (Jas 2:4) and deprive others of their good reputations?

A particularly weighty assertion by Your Holiness is that the recent war could have been prevented by the Catholic Church in Croatia. It had no influence whatsoever upon the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, the Yugoslav National Army, the paramilitary units from Serbia or others who launched and waged war on Croatian soil. Our efforts to find a peaceful solution to the problem received no response from them. The war has demonstrated that the assertion we have heard several times from you, that Croatian Catholics obey their Church, unlike the Orthodox faithful, is without foundation. It is well known that the majority of Serbian politicians, as well as the Serbian Orthodox Church at the time of the democratic changes during the 1990s, represented the position that the Serbian nation could not live with the Croatian nation in an independent Croatian state but exclusively within the framework of a common state, and if that were not possible, Serbs have no other choice except to arm themselves with weapons. In a letter to Lord Peter Carrington, Chairman of the Conference on the Former Yugoslavia, Patriarch Pavle wrote the following in November 1991: “Our compatriots, of the same faith and blood, are being confronted with a fateful choice: either to arm themselves with weapons and fight for survival in the same state together with the Serbian nation or to be forcibly expelled, sooner or later, from the new Independent State of Croatia. There is no third option. Therefore, the Serbian state and Serbian nation must protect them with all legitimate means, including the armed self-defense of Serbian lives and all Serbian territories. The territories in which the Serbian people have lived for centuries and where they were an ethnic majority in April 1941, prior to the genocide inflicted upon them by the Croatian quisling authorities, cannot remain within any independent Croatia but must find themselves beneath a common state roof with today’s Serbia and all Serbian territories.” Although during Patriarch Pavle’s first visit to Zagreb after the Homeland War, he advised Serbs to be loyal citizens of Croatia and urged them “to honorably fulfill all their civic responsibilities and act conscientiously, according to the state laws of the Republic of Croatia,” the consequences of the aforementioned Serbian policy are still felt today in Serbian-Croatian relations, for which the Catholic Church cannot be accused. The stated position on the impossibility for Serbs to live with Croats in a Croatian state proved to be particularly disastrous during the military-police Operation Storm, when the leadership of the Serbs living in Krajina ordered them to leave their places of residence and depart from Croatia, as documented by reliable wartime records.

Your stated opinion, which you presented at the aforementioned Sixty-Second International Belgrade Book Fair (October 24, 2017), that “wherever Serbs live, that is Serbia, whether in Serbia, whether in Bosnia, whether in Vojvodina, whether in Montenegro and in other places,” is not conducive to peace and understanding, because you give Serbs certain rights, without explaining what rights the other citizens who live with Serbs would have. Trust between Serbs and Croats is also not built by your silence concerning the Croatian state. Indeed, when you address written message to the faithful of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia, you regularly fail to mention the country in which they live but only the territories of Dalmatia, Slavonia and Lika. The independence of the Republic of Croatia has been recognized by nearly all the countries of the world. Your ignoring it cannot harm it but it can damage your reputation in Croatia and subject the citizens of Serbian nationality to new temptations. When you recently issued a statement in Montenegro that it is no better for Serbs in Croatia today than it was during the time of the Independent State of Croatia, you were trying to convince your fellow-Serbs and other Croatian citizens about something that is inaccurate and arouses fear. The status of Serbs in Croatia is defined by the Constitution and laws. They have their representatives in the Croatian Parliament and at all levels of local government, participate today as coalition partners in the Government of the Republic of Croatia and have the opportunity to take legal action in order to exercise their rights. Moreover, soon after the signing of the most recent Agreement between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia on Economic Issues, the Croatian Government entered into a similar agreement with the Serbian Orthodox Church, according to which certain funds are allocated to it from the state budget and its own secondary school was opened in Zagreb. Not a small number of real estate properties confiscated during the former communist regime in Yugoslavia have been returned to the Serbian Orthodox Church by the Republic of Croatia.

3. Your Holiness. Everything that the Croatian bishops in the Yugoslav Conference of Bishops and afterwards in the Croatian Conference of Bishops, led by Cardinal Franjo Kuharić, said and did during the war from 1991 to 1995 and until today has been documented and is available to everyone, including, among other things, one of the most recent books written by Julija Barunčić Pletikosić, entitled Katolička Crkva u Hrvatskoj i Domovinski rat 1991 – 1995 (The Catholic Church in Croatia and the Homeland War, 1991‒1995). On various occasions, at meetings with Patriarch Pavle, in sermons and appearances in the public media, the bishops have supported the right of Croats to a free state and the right of all its citizens, especially Serbs, to live in it with their own national, cultural and religious identities. They have raised their voices against all violence, sought to resolve problems by peaceful means, and strongly opposed hatred and revenge against Serbs. Regarding the most severe persecutions of the Croatian population and the destruction of their houses and holy places, Cardinal Kuharić said the following in a homily he delivered in Petrinja on the Feast of St. Lawrence, August 10, 1991: “If my adversary sets my house on fire, I will not set his on fire! If he has demolished my church, I will not even touch his, and, indeed, I will protect it. If he has abandoned his home, I will not take even a needle from it! If he has killed my father, brother and sister, I will not retaliate with the same measure but I will respect the lives of his father, brother and sister!” Unfortunately, we did not hear such words from the representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In stark contrast to Cardinal Kuharić’s evangelical position is a statement issued by Bishop Lukijan Pantelić of Pakrac, who at the same time assured his compatriots that they were acting in accordance with the following principle: “Now we shall again take the Old Testament, in which it is written ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a youth for a youth,’ and afterwards the New Testament, ‘if someone stones you, give him bread.’”

After the legal and internationally recognized military-police Operation Storm, the Croatian bishops warned that it was unacceptable to kill, rob or burn the houses of the Serbian refugees, and expressed support for their return. We particularly wish to mention Bishop Srećko Badurina of Šibenik, who exposed himself to not inconsiderable dangers through such efforts. Among other things, the Catholic bishops intervened so that the bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church who had left Croatia at the beginning of the war could return to their sees, and expressed sensitivity regarding the damage to Serbian holy places in the book The Wounded Church in Croatia: The Destruction of the Sacral Heritage of Croatia (1991‒1995), published by the Croatian Conference of Bishops in 1996, which included the destruction of sacred objects belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia.

4. In the midst of the war, when some thought it unwise to express attitudes publically that could discourage Croatian soldiers from defending their homeland, on May 1, 1995, the first day of the military-police Operation Flash, the Croatian bishops issued the Letter from the Croatian Conference of Bishops on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the End of the Second Word War, in which they clearly expressed their position on the suffering during the Second World War and immediately afterwards, and also the misfortunes of the current war. They expressed their sorrow for each victim who perished in Jasenovac and other places where Serbian, Jewish, Rom, Croatian and other victims suffered, and for the 7,204 Serbs who lost their lives in the war of 1991‒1995, according to the most recent statistics, the majority of whom were members of Serbian military units, including 873 persons in that number who were listed as missing, and expressed their support for reconciliation. Among other things, in that letter the Croatian bishops wrote: “The right to life and the dignity of every person is under God’s protection. Therefore, we owe every innocent victim equal respect. There cannot be racial, confessional, national or political differences here. The fundamental equality of the dignity of all people is derived from the very nature of man, created in the image and likeness of God. Individual and particularly mass liquidations without any court or evidence of guilt are always and everywhere grave crimes before God and before people. Therefore, at the holy altar we will remember the victims who belonged to the Croatian nation and the Catholic Church. We will remember the victims who were of Serbian nationality and belonged to the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia. We will remember the victims among the Jews, Roma and all who were killed here during the Second World War, merely because they were of another nation, another confession or another political conviction.”

In the aforementioned letter, the bishops posed questions that are still relevant today: “The main question is not how to mourn the victims of our own community or how to recognize the guilt of other communities. Croats and Serbs, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, Muslims and others are facing grave moral questions: how to mourn the victims of other communities and how to recognize guilt in their own community. And then, how to repent for their guilt, how to obtain divine and human forgiveness, peace of conscience and reconciliation among people and nations. How to begin a new era founded upon justice and truth.”

The Croatian bishops found the key to their response in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” They recalled the words of Pope John Paul II’s homily in Zagreb on September 11, 1994: “To ask forgiveness and forgive — that in essence is everyone’s duty if we wish to lay a good foundation for a true and lasting peace.” Persisting in this task, in various ways the Croatian bishops have attempted to promote the aforementioned evangelical awareness. Among other things, they do so every year on Vukovar Remembrance Day, including in their prayers‒in addition to the innocent victims killed in Ovčara—all the other victims of war, urging forgiveness and reconciliation. Likewise, every year in the Catholic parish church in Jasenovac, together with many of the faithful, they commemorate the Day of the Purification of the Remembrance and Commemoration of Martyrs, when in their prayers, repentance and forgiveness, they remember the innocent victims of any national or religious affiliation, killed under any flag, from the victims of the Jasenovac camp and the Bleiburg Way of the Cross to the victims of the Homeland War, on both the Croatian and Serbian sides. In recent years, this act of prayer and penance was attended by Bishop Jovan of Slavonia, who is a witness that the [Catholic] bishops and Church in Croatia do not remain silent. We regret that Your Holiness is not acquainted with our efforts concerning forgiveness and reconciliation. In your previously mentioned homily in Bačka Palanka (August 4, 2018), calling for forgiveness, you stated: “We have said so many times but, unfortunately, we do not see that the other side has done anything similar.”

5. Your Holiness. Cognizant that God has “reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18), we reiterate today what we pointed out in our letter of 1995: “We would particularly like Catholics and Orthodox Christians in Croatia to adopt a common Christian attitude toward both the victims and the guilty, toward sin and toward reconciliation. If in the past we have manipulated historical facts, we wish to hasten the hour when, in freedom and responsibility toward God and before mankind, we shall publically manifest the same Christian attitude toward the victims and toward the perpetrators. We pray for that time to come as soon as possible!” Several years ago, we had this letter delivered to you by Msgr. Orlando Antonini, the Apostolic Nuncio in Belgrade, but have not received any response whatsoever to our proposals.

As pastors of the Church, in our society we want to testify to the truth of Jesus’ words: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging others and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. (…) For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you” (Lk 6:36‒38). In this commitment, we are also encouraged by a statement you made in an interview published in Jutarnji list on January 7, 2017: “Words that accuse, pointing a finger at one’s neighbor, do not do anyone any good. They should be avoided. God forbid that the words of religious leaders become pretexts for new violence and new misfortunes!” We believe that it is our evangelical duty to continue to encourage interpersonal encounters and discussions, efforts to promote understanding, the building of bridges in direct fraternal communication, contributed to by occasional meetings between individual bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church and bishops of the Catholic Church in Croatia. We have repeatedly proposed, in writing and verbally, that a way should be found to conduct regular meetings between the Commission of the Croatian Conference of Bishops for Relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Commission of the Serbian Orthodox Church for Relations with the Catholic Church in Croatia on issues that relate to the two Churches and their activity, but have not received any response, and the commissions no longer meet following the death of Patriarch Pavle. Work in the Commission on Blessed Alojzije Stepinac has shown how important it is to converse in a dignified manner as brothers, even concerning the most serious historical controversies about which we fail to agree, avoiding polemics via the media, which are inappropriate for Christians and indicate that in representing the gospel, we are no different from the sons of this world. We should testify together that forgiveness and reconciliation are the only path to liberation from enslavement to the past and mundane political interests, that the power of the gospel lifts us above the mire of the helplessness of evil, and reveals that the Church in our nations is primarily devoted to man, serving him through the gospel.

With expressions of respect and communion in Jesus Christ, our only Lord, we send you our cordial greetings.

Msgr. Želimir Puljić, Archbishop of Zadar, President of the Croatian Conference of Bishops

Cardinal Josip Bozanić, Archbishop of Zagreb and Metropolitan, Vice President of the Croatian Conference of Bishops

Msgr. Marin Barišić, Archbishop of Split-Makarska and Metropolitan

Msgr Ivan Devčić, Archbishop of Rijeka and Metropolitan

Msgr. Đuro Hranić, Archbishop of Đakovo-Osijek and Metropolitan

Msgr. Antun Škvorčević, Bishop of Požega

Msgr. Josip Mrzljak, Bishop of Varaždin

Msgr. Nikola Kekić, Bishop of the Križevci Eparchy

Msgr. Vlado Košić, Bishop of Sisak

Msgr. Vjekoslav Huzjak, Bishop of Bjelovar-Križevci

Msgr. Mate Uzinić, Bishop of Dubrovnik

Msgr. Dražen Kutleša, Bishop of Poreč and Pula

Msgr. Ivica Petanjak, Bishop of Krk

Msgr. Jure Bogdan, Military Ordinary in the Republic of Croatia

Msgr. Zdenko Križić, Bishop of Gospić-Senj

Msgr. Tomislav Rogić, Bishop of Šibenik

Msgr. Petar Palić, Bishop of Hvar and Secretary General of the Croatian Conference of Bishops

Msgr. Mijo Gorski, Auxiliary Bishop of Zagreb

Msgr. Ivan Šaško, Auxiliary Bishop of Zagreb