KNOWN BY local Catholics as the "Rock of Croatia", Cardinal Franjo Kuharic headed Croatia's Catholic Church for nearly 30 years in the country's difficult transition from rebel republic within Communist Yugoslavia to inward-looking, quasi-Fascist independent state under President Franjo Tudjman to a more liberal country open to Europe.
Kuharic's most difficult days came in the early 1990s amid the bloodshed of the break-up of Yugoslavia. He supported Croatia's independence but opposed Tudjman's narrow nationalism and expansionism.
Together with his colleague in Sarajevo, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, Kuharic spoke out against attempts to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina and was a force of moral opposition to Tudjman's 1993-94 conflict with the Bosnian Muslims. Indeed, in mid-1993 he was one of the first senior figures in Croatia to attack Tudjman's Bosnia policy publicly.
In the wake of the Croats' lightning recapture in 1995 of the parts of Croatia taken over by local Serbs with support from Belgrade, Kuharic condemned the violence against the local Serbs, mainly elderly, who remained. His condemnation was not strong enough for many in the Serbian Orthodox Church, who regarded Kuharic as an apologist for the Croatian government's nationalist policies.
Kuharic generally resisted Tudjman's attempts to co-opt the Catholic Church for the purposes of the state and the president's own party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).
Yet many of Tudjman's opponents accused the Church of being too close to the regime, even though Tudjman himself was not particularly religious and was actively disliked in the Vatican.
Kuharic did little to stop Tudjman's manipulation of Pope John Paul II's September 1994 visit to Zagreb in the election campaigns of 1995 and 1997. Nor did Kuharic speak out strongly enough against the corruption, human- rights abuses and curbs on the media of the Tudjman regime. Within the Church he failed to discipline priests who spoke from the pulpit in favour of the HDZ.
Born into a Catholic family in a small village near Krasic, 30 miles south west of Zagreb (Agram), Kuharic was the youngest of 13 children. He entered junior seminary in Zagreb when he was only 12, going on to complete theology studies at the city's Theological Faculty during the Second World War.
Ordained as a priest in Zagreb by Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac in July 1945, just months after the war ended, Kuharic was thrown in at the deep end as state-sponsored attacks on the Church were increasing. His first parish was in Radoboj before, in 1946, he was transferred to be priest of two parishes (one of his predecessors had just been executed by the Communists).
Several attempts were made on his life by local Communists, including an ambush in February 1947, and he avoided death only by sleeping in different houses each night. …