Archbishop Stepinac's Reply at the Trial (1946)


To all charges brought against me here, I answer that my conscience is in every way clear (even though the public here present ridicule this statement), and I seek neither to defend myself nor appeal against the verdict.

For my convictions I am able to bear not only ridicule, hatred, and humiliation, but - because my conscience is clear - I am ready at any moment to die.

Hundreds of times during the trial I have been called "the defendant Stepinac." There is no one so naive as not to know that with the "defendant Stepinac" here on the bench sits the Archbishop of Zagreb, the Metropolitan, and the head of the Catholic Church in Yugoslavia.


Cardinal Stepinac in prison
Charles Billich, see source

You yourselves have many times appealed to the accused priests present to acknowledge that only Stepinac is guilty for their, the people's, and the clergy's attitude. Stepinac, the man, cannot wield such influence, only Stepinac, the Archbishop.

For seventeen months a campaign has been waged against me, publicly and in the press; and for twelve months I suffered actual house arrest in the Archbishop's palace.

The guilt for the rebaptism of Serbs is ascribed to me. That is a misleading expression, for he who is once baptized, need not be re-baptized. The question concerns change of religions, and of this I shall not speak in detail, except to state that my conscience is clear and that history shall one day render its judgment in this matter.

It is a fact that I was obliged to remove pastors, for they stood in danger of death from the Orthodox. The Serbs wanted to kill these priests because they refused them admission into the Church. It is a fact that during the war the Church had to find its way through countless difficulties. There was a desire to aid, as much as it was at all possible, the Serbian people.

The honorable judge has produced evidence showing that I sought an abandoned Orthodox monastery (once belonging to our own Pauline Fathers) in Orehovica to lodge Trappists whom the Germans had driven away from Reichburg. It was my duty to aid my brother Slovenes, whom the Hitlerites had banished, to find temporary shelter.

Because I was the Military Ordinary, grave criminality is imputed to me. The honorable judge asked me if I did not consider myself a traitor to Yugoslavia because in this matter I sought an understanding with the Independent State of Croatia.

I was the Military Ordinary in the former Yugoslavia. I labored during those eight to nine years to bring about a definite solution of the religious problem. This question was finally solved through the Yugoslav Concordat, which was agreed upon after great difficulties, solemnly ratified in parliament, but then shelved.

When the war between Yugoslavia and Germany neared its end, I extended spiritual aid to the Catholic soldiers of the former Yugoslav army and of the newly created Independent State of Croatia. If, therefore, the state had fallen, but the soldiers still remained, I felt obliged to concern myself with this situation.

I was persona non grata to either the Germans or the Ustashe; I was not an Ustasha, nor did I take their oath as did some of the officials of this court whom I see here. The Croatian nation unanimously declared itself for the Croatian State and I would have been remiss had I not recognized and acknowledged this desire of the Croatian people enslaved by the former Yugoslavia.

I have said that Croats were not allowed to advance in the army or to enter the diplomatic corps unless they changed their religion or married a nonbeliever. That is the factual basis and background of my pastorals and sermons.

Whatever I have said of the right of the Croatian nation to its freedom and independence is in complete accord with the basic principles enunciated by the Allies at Yalta and in the Atlantic Charter.

If, according to these principles, every nation has the right to independence, then why should it be denied to the Croats? The Holy See has declared that both small nations and national minorities have a right to freedom. Must, then, a Catholic Bishop and Metropolitan maintain total silence on this issue? If fall we must, then we fall because we have done our duty.

Do not think that the Croatian nation is pleased with this trial, or that if given an opportunity to express themselves I would suffer as a result. I have honored and respected the will of my people, and I shall continue to do so.

You accuse me as an enemy of the State and the people's authority. I acknowledge your authority. What was my authority? I repeat again: you have been my authority since May 8, I 945, but not before that. Where is it possible in the world to obey two authorities: you in the woods; they in Zagreb?

Should I have given allegiance to the authority of the illegal Simovic, or - as you call it - the "exiled" government in London, to the one in Cairo, yours in the woods or theirs in Zagreb? Is it possible to serve two masters? This is impossible, according to Catholic morals, the law of nations, and common sense. We could not ignore the authority here, even if it were Ustasha. It was here. You have a right to call me to account for action since May 8, 1945.

As to my so-called acts of terrorism, you have no proof, nor can anyone believe you. If Lisak, Lela Sofijanec, and others came to me under assumed names, if I received a letter which I never read, and if it be a crime for men to come to me, I shall accept the verdict with equanimity.

It does not trouble my conscience to have issued a certificate of free movement to the Rev. Maric, for I did not do so with the purpose of creating difficulties, and if this be guilt I would leave this world with my soul at peace.

Whether you believe me or not, does not matter. The accused Archbishop of Zagreb knows not only how to suffer but also to die for his convictions.

President Bakaric (of Croatia) himself acknowledged to the Rev. Milanovic: "We are convinced that the Archbishop stands behind these acts, but we have no proof" That, for me, is sufficient acknowledgement. And now, what is the essence of our controversy and our vicissitudes, and why has not a peaceful solution been reached? The state prosecutor has many times affirmed that nowhere else is there such freedom of conscience as in this state. I am free to demonstrate the contrary.

Before all, I repeat: 260 to 270 priests have been killed by the National Liberation Movement. In no civilized state in the world would so many priests be punished for such crimes as have been imputed to them. For example, the pastor of Slatina, the Rev. Burger, as a member of the Kultur bund, should have been sentenced to, say, eight years imprisonment; but no, you killed him because he, in fulfillment of his duty as dean, had saved the sacred vessels of a national shrine.

The Rev. Povoljnjak was, without benefit of trial, murdered like a dog in the streets. And the same has been the fate of accused Sisters. In no other civilized state would death have been meted out: only, at the most, a prison sentence.

You have made a fatal mistake in murdering priests. The people will not forgive you for that. Such is your "freedom."

Our Catholic schools, built at the cost of great sacrifices, have been taken away from us. If I had not received seven carloads of foodstuff from America, we could not have done anything for the children of our poor peasant folk.

With force you took away all the seminary property. You have done nothing less than what the Gestapo did in seizing the seminary at Mokrice. We are not against agrarian reforms - the Holy See has issued many encyclicals on the social question - but they should have been carried out in agreement with the Holy See. Our orphanages have been rendered useless. Our printing presses have been silenced, and I am not sure if one still exists. We have no publications today, although they have been violently attacked here.

Is it not manifestly scandalous to insist that nowhere does the Church enjoy such "freedom" as here? The Dominicans were unable to publish a spiritual book, translated by me from French, to be printed at a cost of 75,000 dinars. Is this freedom of the press?

The St. Jerome Society has ceased to exist. It is a grave offense against the people to treat their greatest and oldest cultural institution in this manner. You have reproached me for the work of my Caritas. But I say to you: Caritas has performed untold services for our people and your children.

There is the question of religious instruction in the schools. You have laid down the rule: In the higher grades of the secondary schools religious instruction is forbidden, and in the lower grades it is discretionary. How can you give to children the right to determine for themselves when they have not grown up, while those in the higher grades who have the right to vote are not allowed freedom of choice in this regard? Our nursing Sisters in the Catholic hospitals must bear untold miseries and hardships.

Against the overwhelming opposition of the people you have introduced civil marriage. Why did you not interpret this freedom in accordance with the spirit of society in America, for example, where one is free to choose either civil or religious marriage?

We do not deny to you some degree of control over marriage. But it grievously pains our people when they must first enter a civil before a religious marriage. If you had turned to us, we would have given you suggestions on this matter.

The buildings of some of the religious in Backa have been confiscated. Some churches in Split (I do not know whether it still holds true) have been converted into warehouses. Church lands have been seized without any agreement with the Holy See. You have witnessed how the people, in the face of your agrarian reform, refuse to take these lands.

No, the material question is the least of our concerns. The tragic thing is this: not one priest or bishop is today certain of his life, day or night. Bishop Srebrnic was attacked in SuA!ak by youths at the instigation of responsible persons. For three hours they tormented him and invaded his quarters while your police and militia looked on.

I myself suffered a similar experience in Zapresic when I was attacked with rocks and revolvers. Bishop Lach, when he was on a Confirmation tour across the Drave, and even though his mission was known, was turned back and held the whole night in the prison at Koprivnica. In fact, your own men who were in the woods came to me and declared: "This is unbecoming conduct. We shall protest to the authorities."

Rocks were hurled through the window of the house where Bishop Buric was staying while on a Confirmation tour. Bishop PuA!ic, as I heard, was recently the target of rotten apples and eggs.

Such "freedom" we hold to be an illusion. We do not wish to exist like outlawed bandits. We shall fight, by all just means, for our rights - and here in this state.

I would add - so that you may understand why we fight - three or four more examples of your "freedom." In the classrooms it is officially taught - in defiance of all historical proofs - that Jesus Christ never existed. Know you then: Jesus Christ is God. For Him we are ready to die. And today, you teach that He never actually lived. If a teacher dared to teach the contrary, he would certainly be expelled.

I tell you, Mr. Prosecutor, that under such conditions the Church is not free, but will be slowly annihilated. Christ is the foundation of Christianity. You express concern for the Orthodox Serbs. I ask you: how can you conceive of Orthodoxy without Christ? How can you conceive of the Catholic Church without Christ? It is an utter absurdity.

In the school books it is stated that the Mother of God was an adulteress. Are you unaware that for both Catholics and Orthodox the Mother of God is holy?

You have proclaimed, as official doctrine, that man descends from the apes. That perhaps may satisfy the ambition of some. But why decree that as an official theory when no scholar of reputation holds it to be valid?

According to your reviews, materialism is the only acceptable system and that implies the elimination of God and Christianity. If there is nothing but matter - then thank you for your "freedom." One of your men of influence once boasted:

There is no one in this State whom we could not bring to court and sentence. To these outrageous charges whereby you place us among murderers and associates of terrorists, I say to you that not all the evil committed in the former Independent State of Croatia was the work of the Domobrani or the Ustashe.

Let no one think I want conflict. Let the present authorities come to an understanding with the Holy See. The Church does not recognize dictatorship, but she is not against honest understandings. If that could be achieved, then the Bishops will know what is their duty and there will be no need to seek out priests to point out their (the Bishops') guilt, as was done here.

Finally, I want to say a few words to the Communist Party, which, in reality is my accuser. If you think I have taken the present stand because of material things, you are wrong, for we have remained firm, even after you have made us poor.

We are not against workers obtaining greater rights in the factories, for this is in line with the Papal Encyclicals. Nor are we against reforms. But let us make it plain to the leaders of communism: if there shall be freedom to diffuse materialism, then let us have the right to confess and propagate our principles. Catholics have died and will die for that right.

I conclude: With good will, an understanding can come about. The initiative lies with the present authorities. Neither I nor the hierarchy are the ones to enter into this basic agreement. That is a matter between the State and the Holy See. As to myself and as to the verdict, I seek no mercy. My conscience is clear!

The above text is taken from CROWN, submitted by Danica Ramljak, PhD, 2005

Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac and saving the Jews in Croatian during the WWII