".... John Paul may pay homage at the tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, ......... an early supporter of Croatia's Nazi puppet regime that took power in 1941. ......"

AP 7 Sep 94 15:29 EDT V0899

The Associated Press

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) -- The pope canceled his trip to Bosnia, but he's still headed to neighboring Croatia this weekend. This papal visit is long overdue: It has been more than 800 years since a pope last reached Croatian territory. And even then, it was by mistake. A ship carrying Pope Alexander III to Venice was blown onto a Croatian island during a storm in 1177. Catholic Hungary ruled Croatia then and for the next eight centuries, and the Vatican deemed a visit to Croatia unnecessary. Now, with Croatia free both of Hungary and the communist Yugoslav federation it broke from in 1991, John Paul II has decided it is high time for a pilgrimage to this most [Roman] Catholic of Balkan states.

He will make the two-day visit Saturday and Sunday. Seventy-seven percent of Croatia's 4.8 million people are Roman Catholic, many of them fervent believers.

Zagreb church officials expect nearly 1 million pilgrims to come to the Hippodrome on Sunday to attend a Mass celebrated by John Paul or to watch it on giant TV screens outside the horse racing stadium. The visit has assumed additional significance with the pope's decision to cancel a visit Thursday to Sarajevo, the capital of neighboring Bosnia, because of concern that crowds there could be targeted by Serb gunners.

John Paul may pay homage at the tomb of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, a staunch anti-communist. But such a papal gesture is sure to stir controversy.

Although Stepinac fought off attempts by the communist Yugoslav government to split the Croatian church from the Vatican --- and was jailed as a result --- he also was an early supporter of Croatia's Nazi puppet regime that took power in 1941. That regime was responsible for the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Gypsies and Jews. Though Stepinac began denouncing the genocidal policies as early as 1942, many Serbs still regard Stepinac as a war criminal.

With Croats again at war with Serbs, sensitivities remain high. Serbs still control one-third of Croatia they captured in 1991 during its war of independence from Yugoslavia.

Most of the world supports Zagreb's claim to all of the territory, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman on Wednesday said the papal visit gave "moral support" to his country's struggle to regain what it lost.

But the Croatian government also has been faulted for whipping up nationalist fears and passions similar to those that sparked the carnage of 50 years ago.

Rebel Serb leader Milan Martic, in a letter to the pontiff published Wednesday, blamed "Croatian state terror over the (Croatian) Serbs" for the 1991 war.

But the church has changed.

Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, modern-day successor to Stepinac, has been a voice of moderation. Though he openly welcomed the nationalist government that broke from Yugoslavia after 50 years of Communist rule, he coolly rejected Tudjman's efforts to exploit the church in his bid to incite passions against Eastern Orthodox Serbs.

And when war broke out in 1991, the cardinal resisted the official hate talk and repeatedly pleaded for forgiveness to both sides. "By distancing itself from politics and even criticizing the ruling policies, the Catholic Church in Croatia has preserved its autonomy," religion writer Darko Pavicic said.

Kuharic's thinking on Bosnia also ran counter to the Croatian government's initial support of attempts by Bosnian Croats to carve out a mini-state in the republic. Catholic leaders in Croatia and Bosnia opposed such move, drawing direct criticism from Tudjman. The church's high moral stance has drawn praise from unlikely quarters. "Kuharic is simply irreproachable," Slavko Goldstein, a Jewish community leader and independent publisher in Zagreb, told the AP.

Jelena Lovric, a distinguished liberal columnist in Zagreb, said that "the Church won everyone's respect when it condemned unholy practices even when they were committed by Croats."