Croatia quashes controversial WWII cardinal verdict

Zagreb (AFP) - A Croatian court on Friday quashed a communist era verdict convicting a controversial World War II-era cardinal for collaborating with the Nazis, infuriating neighbouring Serbia.

Alojzije Stepinac, who critics say failed to condemn the persecution of Serbs and Jews, headed Croatia's Catholic Church during WWII.

He was later sentenced by Yugoslav communist authorities for allegedly collaborating with the country?s pro-Nazi regime (NDH) which he denied. He was sentenced to 16 years in jail.

The 1946 verdict against Stepinac "grossly violates basic principles of both then and current criminal law", a Zagreb court judge said.

The goal of the trial was to "morally discredit him and the Catholic Church", judge Ivan Turudic said.

Stepinac spent five years in prison and was then put under house arrest. He died in 1960 at the age of 61.

The judge said the trial was a "rigged political process."

The quashing of the verdict, sought by Stepinac's nephew, immediately fuelled tensions with Serbia, where he is considered a war criminal.

In Belgrade, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said in a statement: "This is not only Serbian-Croatian issue, this is a global and Europe's problem.... How is this possible in the European Union which was built on the victory over fascism?" he added.

Croats and Serbs fought each other during the WWII and during the Balkans 1990s wars. Croatia joined EU in 2013 as its 28th member.

Stepinac's trial was for long also a sticking point between the Catholic Church and the Yugoslav communist regime.

Stepinac has been beatified but has not been declared a saint.

In overwhelmingly Catholic country, many see Stepinac as a national hero and martyr for his attachment to an independent Croatia and unwavering faith in the face of communist persecution.

In 1992, Croatian lawmakers adopted a declaration condemning the "political verdict" against Stepinac.

Nearly 90 percent of the former Yugoslav republic's population of 4.2 million is Roman Catholic.

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