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Bosnian Catholic cardinal to honor Nazi collaborators in memorial service

Jewish groups and Israeli embassy protest event in memory of Ustasha forces, responsible for gory anti-Semitic killings during World War II

Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schonborn (C), Archbishop of The Catholic Church in Bosnia Vinko Puljic (L) and Vatican's Apostolic Nuncio in Bosnia and Herzegovina Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto (R), lead the service at The Cathedral of "The Heart of Jesus" in Sarajevo, on March 4, 2018. (ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images and JTA)
Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schonborn (C), Archbishop of The Catholic Church in Bosnia Vinko Puljic (L) and Vatican's Apostolic Nuncio in Bosnia and Herzegovina Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto (R), lead the service at The Cathedral of "The Heart of Jesus" in Sarajevo, on March 4, 2018. (ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images and JTA)

Bosnia’s most senior Catholic clergyman plans to host a memorial service on Saturday for Croatian civilians and soldiers of the Nazi-allied Ustasha forces, the Dnevni Avaz daily reported Monday.

Jews in Bosnia and Israel’s embassy to that Balkan nation are protesting the plan, titled “Mass for Bleiburg,” and to be held at Sarajevo’s Heart of Jesus Cathedral.

Members of the Croat pro-Nazi Ustasha militia committed some of the goriest anti-Semitic murders documented in World War II. Tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats perished in the Ustasha-run death camps.

In May 1945, partisans killed tens of thousands of Ustasha soldiers and supporters who had fled to the Bleiburg environs in Austria, as the Allies progressed on Adolf Hitler’s Germany and its allies. It is seen by historians as revenge by the victorious communist partisan fighters immediately after the war ended.

In recent years, commemorations of Nazi collaborators, including state and church officials, have become commonplace in Eastern Europe, where many regard them as patriots who fought Russian Soviet domination.

Aloysius Stepinac, right, shakes hands with Ustasha leader Ante Pavelić. (Public domain)

The event’s organizers listed fascist leaders like Maks Luburic and Jure Francetic among those to be commemorated. They also said the event is meant to commemorate all war victims.

The controversial gathering of Croatia’s far-right supporters has been held annually in Bleiburg, but had to be moved to Sarajevo and the Croatian capital, Zagreb, for next Saturday because of travel restrictions and a ban on mass gatherings during the coronavirus crisis.

For Croatian nationalists, the controversial annual event symbolizes their suffering under communism in the former Yugoslavia before they fought a war for independence in the 1990s.

The central commemoration ceremony in Sarajevo is scheduled to be performed by Archbishop Vinko Puljic, the highest-ranking clergyman of the Catholic Church in Bosnia. A parallel event is to be held at a graveyard in the Croatian capital.

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 Thursday.

The Jewish Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a nonprofit representing local Jews, in a statement Sunday called the planned Mass a “memorial service for criminals responsible for the suffering of Sarajevans.”

The Israeli Embassy in Tirana, Albania, wrote in a rare rebuke: “We join the call of many leaders and of the Jewish community to the catholic church to reconsider their initiative.”

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