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Catholic churches plan to hold mass for pro-Nazi WWII collaborators

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Sarajevo, Bosnia. (Zoran Kurelić Rabko/Wikimedia Commons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The Catholic Churches of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, despite widespread condemnation, are planning to hold a public mass on May 16 in Sarajevo for Croatia’s pro-Nazi collaborators and civilians killed by communist partisans at the end of World War II.

The commemoration, usually held every May near the southern Austrian town of Bleiburg, was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bosnian and Croatian churches have stepped in and are organizing the event under the auspices of the Croatian parliament, which in 2016 reintroduced state sponsorship of the commemoration after having revoked it in 2012 amid criticism that it was rehabilitating the Nazi-allied Ustasha regime.

Sarajevo Archbishop Vinko Puljic is due to hold the mass in the cathedral of the Bosnian capital.

All three members of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, along with most political parties and nongovernmental organizations, as well as the Serbian Orthodox Church, Jewish leaders, and the U.S. and Israeli embassies have condemned the event.

Eric Nelson, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, told RFE/RL on May 15 that commemorations should “focus on remembrance, not revisionism.”

“Especially this year, when we mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is important for everyone to focus on two values of democracy — reconciliation and interreligious dialogue,” Nelson said.

The U.S. Embassy in Bosnia called “on those organizing the Bleiburg commemoration in Bosnia and Herzegovina to refrain from historical revisionism and retrograde rhetoric.”

The Israeli Embassy said on Twitter that “the state of Israel stands firm and raises its voice against all attempts of revisionism.”

The war-time Independent State of Croatia (NDH) controlled by the Nazi-backed Ustasha included Bosnia and parts of Serbia. The Ustasha persecuted and killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and anti-Nazi Croatians.

At the end of the war, the Ustasha, accompanied by civilians and Slovenian and Serbian collaborators, fled towards Austria, but British forces there refused their surrender.

Bosnia’s Jewish leaders, Jakob Finci and Boris Kozemjakin, sent a protest letter to Puljic, warning that the event “will commemorate…the butchers of our mothers, our fathers, our grandfathers, and all our innocent fellow citizens killed by the fascist NDH.”

Meanwhile, the Simon Wiesenthal Center urged the Bosnian government to ban the memorial mass.

Honoring “the genocidal Ustasha state (NDH) is not only an insult to its victims and their families, but also to all those who opposed the crimes committed by the Ustasha,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement on May 14.

Archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Sarajevo, Hrizostom, recalled that “more than 10,000 Sarajevo inhabitants, Serbs, Jews, Roma, and other people opposing the Ustasha movement were killed” during the war.

“You are holding a mass for those who committed those crimes,” Hrizostom said in a letter to Puljic.

But the cardinal rejected the accusations and said that praying for the victims’ souls did not mean approval of their acts.

The number of people caught and executed by Communist leader Josip Broz Tito’s partisans in the Bleiburg border region between Austria and Slovenia is subject to historical debate, but many independent historians put it at tens of thousands.

Anti-fascist NGOs called for a peaceful march during the mass.