The Croatian Foreign and European Affairs Ministry on Monday sent a protest note to Serbia over "unacceptable statements" by Serbian officials about the annulment of the verdict against Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.

The judgement against Zagreb Archbishop Alojzije Stepinac, who was sentenced in 1946 by the Communist regime to 16 years in prison and forced labour and was stripped of his political and civil rights for five years, was on Friday annulled by the Zagreb County Court which established that the guilty verdict had grossly violated the then and current principles of criminal law.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said that with this ruling Croatia "was covering up the pits in which the Ustasha had buried Serbs" and risking the support of the civilised world, while the country's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic described Stepinac as "one of the key ideologists of the worst Nazi-style government on European soil."

The Croatian foreign ministry said that these statements assess Croatia and the work of its institutions in an inappropriate and revisionist fashion, and pose a direct interference in internal affairs of a neighbouring country.

Expressing its protest in the strongest terms, the Croatian foreign ministry said this rhetoric encouraged intolerance between the two peoples and drew Serbia further from accepting European values and joining the European family.

The Croatian foreign ministry called on Serbian state officials to focus their efforts on strengthening good-neighbourly relations and rational dialogue on all issues important for the the two countries' relations.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic on Saturday said that Serbia wanted good relations with Croatia and that it would always be on the side of anti-fascism, but that the annulment of the verdict against Alojzije Stepinac spoke more about Croatia than it did about Serbia.

"The Serbian people will never support fascism and they will know how to protect their country and people from  fascism. What others will do, is their business and this decision speaks more about them than about Serbians," Vucic told the press.

Nikolic said the verdict was a form of pressure on Pope Francis "to give up on establishing the truth and to canonise the former cardinal."

Cardinal Stepinac (1898-1960) was the leading figure in the Catholic Church in Croatia during World War Two. After the war, Communist authorities charged him with collaborating with the Ustasha regime of the Independent State of Croatia (1941-1945), although he publicly denounced the crimes of the pro-Nazi regime and actively helped provide sanctuary for those persecuted. Subsequently, Stepinac spent five years in prison and nine years under house arrest until he died.

In October 1946 the then Supreme Court found him guilty of all charges in his indictment.

In February 1992, the Croatian parliament adopted a declaration condemning the court decision and the process that led to it. The declaration states that the true reason of Stepinac's imprisonment was his pointing out many communist crimes and especially refusing to form a Croatian Catholic Church in schism with the Pope.

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