CHAPTER TWO: THE FIRST STRIFE
The Crisis of the 1930s, War, and the Cease-Fire of the 1960s
In the 1930s, friction between the two main national churches contributed to violence, instability, and the instability of the state. The Serbian Orthodox Church and the Croatian Catholic Church consistently failed to find common ground, or to work out comprises on how they would allow the other to define its relation to the ruling regime.
The 1935 concordat signed between the Yugoslav royal government and the Vatican became the focal point of Serbian Orthodox hostility. The Church had managed to get itself positioned as the de facto offical state church and did not want to see that position threatened. The argument against the concordat was that it would open Yugoslavia's religious life to outside interference (the Vatican) as well as threaten Serbian Orthodoxy--which was the largest single faith in the country. The protests culminated in the "Bloody Liturgy" of July 19, 1937, when protests led and organized by Patriarch Varnava turned into massive riots. The unrest and violence continued several days later when the Patriarch died.
That these claims seem faintly ridiculous is less interesting than to note that these concerns, and the underlying logic informing them, mirror the claims of Serbian nationalism within both Yugoslavias. The Church ignored its own primacy within the Kingdom and ignored the fact that it enjoyed a privileged position in a multi-ethnic nation of many faiths. And it defined efforts by a rival faith to improve its own lot as an attack on Serbian Orthodoxy.
The Serbian Orthodox Church explicitly rejected secularization and separation of church and state in the 1930s, instead calling on Serbs to identify with the church and its fate. Most state holidays in royal Yugoslavia were actually Serbian Orthodox religious holidays--which were often, in fact, holidays commemorating events in Serbian history, most notably the battle of Kosovo.
One result of this discord was that the Croat church never lent its support to the interwar Yugoslav state. It is worth noting that Serbian Orthodox fears regarding the Vatican's motives were not groundless--as Perica notes, conversion of Orthodox Christians was official Vatican policy until 1965. Having a stronger institutional foothold in this large, newly created Balkan state was certainly an advantage towards that end.
The two churches held different commemorations during this decade; the Serb church remembering the 550th anniversary of Kosovo in 1939, while the Croat church initiated the novena in honor of the 1000-year anniversary of the conversion of the Croat nation. The contemporary political meanings of these commemorations--and their nationalist subtexts--was clear. The Serbs were martyrs for Balkan independence, while the Croats had a much longer history of being Christian, as well as ties to the West.
Other issues fueled the fire. There was allegedly pressure on Catholic civil servants to convert to Orthodoxy, and both the Serbian Orthodox church and the state supported the Croatian Old Catholic Church, a small denomination considered schismatic by the Croat Roman Catholic hierarchy.
So by 1941, the two main national churches were at each other's throat. The Vatican itself held a grudge against the Serbian Orthodox Church, and at the celebration of Kosovo in 1939 Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic told the Serb faithful that the choice of Kosovo--between absolute freedom or death--was still true for Serbs in the present day.
And then the Nazi invaded, the old state was destroyed, and hell was unleashed.