Bitter homecoming for Croat Catholics

Sarah Helm finds few voices of tolerance in Krajina

Father Andrea Shantic didn't look like a man ready to forgive, as he stood by the ruins of the Croat Catholic church of St Ivan Nepomuk, near the town of Glina. The priest trod carefully as he surveyed the elder- flowers and thistles which had overgrown the rubble where he once preached.

About 200 Catholic churches were destroyed by Orthodox Serbs during the four-year occupation of Krajina, including nine in Glina, which had a Serb majority until last week's exodus. Among the 150,000 Serbian refugees who fled the area since the Croat reconquest were 130 Orthodox priests.

"They can come back if they are not ashamed," said Fr Shantic, recalling his last service in the church on 30 September 1991, just before the Serb assault. Since then he has lived as a refugee in nearby Sisak.

The evidence is that the Orthodox churches the Serbs left behind have been left standing by the Croat army, although nobody can tell whether buildings have been destroyed by arson in recent days. Croatia has been anxious not to be accused of the same barbarities as the Serbs it evicted.

In Glina, an Orthodox church has been left intact, while another in Petrinja stands half-built. The bricklayers clearly fled in the mass panic, leaving cement pallets strewn behind them.

Most Catholic priests and their congregations would not welcome the return of Serbs to Krajina. The Orthodox priests who fled are accused of fuelling hatred and of orchestrating the destruction of Catholic churches. "They were not religious. Their priests talked of revenge ... They didn't believe in a God," said an old man standing beside another burnt-out Catholic church.

Since the recapture of Krajina, the Croatian Cardinal, Franjo Kuharic, has appealed for moderation. Yesterday, when the cardinal conducted a service in Gospic, he warned against more violence. However, voices of tolerance find few echoes in what was once Serb-occupied Krajina.

The Serbs who seized power in Krajina in 1991 stirred up their people by recalling atrocities against the Orthodox Church by the Croat Nazi puppet state during the Second World War. More than 100 Orthodox priests and three bishops were killed, and about 1,000 Serbs were massacred in Glina's Orthodox Church of the Nativity, which was then razed. Only 40 miles from Glina is the Jasenovac concentration camp, where hundreds of thousands of Serbs, gypsies and Jews were slaughtered in the 1940s.

Like the Catholic moderates, Serb Orthodox moderates who remain in Croatia have been ignored. Many Orthodox priests left the country before the Croatian offensive, running to Belgrade to do the bidding of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president. WhenCatholic churches in Krajina were demolished, Orthodox buildings in Croatia were destroyed in revenge.

"The destruction of Catholic churches in Krajina was systematic - it is hard for me to talk of it," says Jovan Nikolic, a retired Orthodox priest in Zagreb. "It is hard to think that people in my congregation had carried this out. But it was the revenge of 50 years. Now we can expect more revenge for another 50 years."

On the ruins of the Catholic churches in Glina, Petrinja and other towns, small wooden crosses have been erected. "God save Croatia," say notes left by worshippers, and Croat flags hang from the few church buildings left half-standing.

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