BELGRADE – The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) is outraged by the recent annulment of the 1946 conviction of Croatian Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, for treason and collaboration with the Nazi-aligned Ustasha regime, The Jerusalem Post reported.

“As the leading Catholic priest in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), Stepinac’s responsibility was to speak out on behalf of the innocent victims of the Ustasha, not to lend spiritual support to their murderers,” said the SWC’s top Nazi hunter, Dr. Efraim Zuroff.

“The genocidal campaign waged by the Ustasha against Serbs, their active participation in Holocaust crimes against Jews, and the murder of Roma and anti-fascist Croatians carried out in their network of concentration camps are among the most heinous crimes of World War II. No person who supported that regime should have their conviction annulled.”

The Zagreb County Court judge Ivan Turudić overturned the verdict last week, saying it had violated the right to a fair trial, the prohibition of forced labor and the rule of law.

Zuroff was dismissive of accounts that Stepinac later condemned Ustasha atrocities against Jews and Serbs.

“Bottom line is he was [NDH leader] Ante Pavelić’s priest, that says it all and it’s totally unforgivable,” he told The Jerusalem Post Monday. “He openly supported the regime, which committed mass murder and afforded them spiritual comfort and support,” he continued, saying the stance Stepinac took was of “huge significance.”

He says that for this reason, the annulment of the verdict is cause for celebration for nationalist and ultra right-wing Croatians. “Right now in Croatia there is a cultural, ideological war,” he states, saying that the latter are seeking to whitewash or modify the crimes of the Ustasha. “There are many people who view them as heroes because of their fierce patriotism and nationalism.”

Stepinac died in 1960, but remained as controversial a figure in death as in life. In 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified Stepinac, and his eventual canonization appears to be inevitable, though it was suspended by Pope Francis.

Zuroff remarked that the controversy over Stepinac is part of an ongoing war between Croatia and Serbia. “In Croatia there were 40,000 Jews. Of those 20,000 were murdered by the Ustasha,” Zuroff noted, adding that many others were deported to Auschwitz. “But that was only a sideshow to the mass murder of the Serbs. This is tragedy of monumental proportions.”