Church fires in three nations linked to canonisation row

There are fears that fires in Orthodox churches in Australia, the United States and Russia at Easter are part of a row over a dead Croatian cardinal.

Fires occurred at the churches in New York, Melbourne, Sydney and in Russia during the Orthodox Easter last month.

Officials fear the fires may have been started in retaliation for Orthodox efforts to block the canonisation of Croatian Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac.

The cardinal supported parts of a puppet Nazi regime, the Ustashe, in Croatia in World War II.

The regime persecuted Serbs and Jews and also forced Orthodox Christians to convert to Catholicism.

In the 1990s, Vatican offices and Stepinac’s defenders in Croatia produced evidence that the archbishop criticsed the excesses of the Ustashe as early as 1941, and that he personally intervened to save the lives of a number of Jews.

But his criticisms were seen as muted.

After the war, Stepinac spent five years in prison and the rest of his life under house arrest in the small village of Krasic, his birthplace. He died in 1960.

In 1998, Pope John Paul II beatified him.

Cardinal Stepanic’s possible canonisation is a point of dispute between Croatia and Serbia, with leaders of both nations lobbying Pope Francis.

Serbian Othordox Patriarch Irinej wrote to Pope Francis and said: “We are afraid that there are too many open questions and wounds which Cardinal Stepinac symbolises.”

“His canonisation, to our great regret, would return the relations between Serbs and Croats, as well as between Catholics and Orthodox faithful, back to their tragic history.”

Dusan Batakovic, a former Serbian ambassador, told US media: “Too many churches have burned to call it an accident.

“It is very strange that it happened, that the fires all took place on Easter, the greatest Christian Orthodox holiday. Some kind of terrorist action cannot be excluded.”

Authorities in Melbourne initially deemed the church fire there to be not suspicious, and the fire at an Orthodox cathedral in New York may have been caused by candles left burning at Easter.

The displaced Orthodox congregation in Sydney has received support from nearby Catholic and Uniting churches, which have offered their buildings for services.


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