Christianity arrived in the area which is nowadays Croatia very early, in 7th century. The geographical position of Croatia made it very prone to the acceptance of the new religion; its proximity to the Mediterranean routes and also being in the centre of the Roman Empire all played their part in establishing the religion on the eastern shores of the Adriatic. There are serious historical claims that St. Jerome was born on the soil which today belongs to the Croatian Republic. Also all relevant historical explorations show that the shipwreck of Saint Paul most probably happened on the Island of Mljet (Melita) and not Malta as has previously been believed. Malta enjoyed enormous political power and influence, so therefore it was impossible to convince anybody that such important man was not on Malta but some (unimportant) island in the Adriatic Illyria. In the Acts of the Apostles it was clearly stated that while on “Melita”, St. Paul was attacked and bitten by the snake in the woods. On Malta there have never been woods or snakes. On the contrary, Mljet in Croatia was always heavily covered by woods and was full of snakes. The problem was so huge that the former Yugoslav government introduced mongooses to the island and they have killed every single snake on the island, so Mljet is now snakeless but also has no small mammals because they have all ended up in mongooses’ stomachs.

When writing about historical background there is always a question as to when we should start to write – from the Middle Ages onwards, or it would be more appropriate to write about modern day Croatia and its history? Although I feel that for this kind of format it would be more appropriate to write about the history of the modern state, I also feel it is necessary to explain some historical processes which have preceded modern day Croatia. Apart from mentioning the acceptance of Christianity in 7th Century by Prince Višeslav (knez Višeslav) I will briefly explain the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and State in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Pre-Communist Yugoslavia, the Socialist Period and then Modern Day Croatia.

When Croatia was part of Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the Catholic Church was originally treated (not officially recognised) as the state church, and therefore Catholics belonged to the state religion, and other accepted churches, Protestant and Orthodox Churches, operated without privileges. On the other hand Jews were also present and their status was regulated by the Law of 1729 in which they had only the right to trade, without real estate property rights. That changed during the rule of Joseph II when The Law on Tolerance was delivered: Catholicism was the official faith and others were just accepted (tolerated). During that period, especially after the death of Joseph II, the Catholic Church had strong influence in Croatian society; even apostasy was punishable by the Criminal Code in art. 122 and the Civil Code in its art. 768 provided that it should be one of the grounds for disinheritance. Subsequently the State concluded a Concordat with the Holy See in 1855 in which Catholicism became the state official religion, and in 1859 an Imperial Patent made Protestants equal to Catholics. Even after the Austro-Prussian war of 1866 when Franz Joseph established the Dual Monarchy and proclaimed equality in all regions of the Hungarian part of the Kingdom, Croatia and Slavonia (one of Croatian regions) retained autonomy in religious matters, while Dalmatia (also one of Croatian regions) followed Austrian territory as being officially part of Austria, not Hungary. Until 1916 five religious communities were recognised officially through the legislative process of the Croatian Parliament: Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Evangelical Church, Jewish Community and Islamic Community. Croatia was the second country in Europe to recognise Islam as a registered and organised faith, after Austria in 1912, although parts of Croatia which were under Austrian rule (Dalmatia) had it even back in 1912.

After the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, King Alexander of Yugoslavia guaranteed the equality of all religions in 1919 by proclamation, and also abolished the state religion as such: a Ministry of Religion was established. Despite the formal equality, Serbian and Montenegrin Orthodox churches which merged in 1920 had a privileged position compared with all other religious communities—for example, although Catholics in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes made up to 39.9% of the total population, the Ministry of Religion gave “only” 10,903,993 crowns to Catholic Church and 141,246,426 crowns was given to Orthodox Church. After the Constitution of 1921 the state church system was formally dissolved, but religious communities remained part of the state system, as quasi-public bodies. During the dictatorship under King Alexander, four laws regulating the existence and work of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Islamic Community, the Evangelical Church and the Jewish Community were put into force, but no Law regulated the status of Catholic Church. The “old” Concordats were still in force but to some extent outdated. Therefore the Catholic Church requested a new Concordat with the Holy See but this was never signed. All religious groups other than Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim, Evangelical and Reformed Christian were forbidden and illegal.

When we talk about the position of religious communities within the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the main statement is that religion was heavily suppressed by the regime with some variations in the time scale. Although religious groups were guaranteed freedom of association, public prerogatives were lost (Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities, 1953) and state subsidies were also lost. Despite the formal guarantees, Catholics were specially prosecuted and their connection with the Holy See was specially regarded as anti-communist, anti-socialist and anti-Yugoslav. The Church was deprived of its property, Catholic institutions were closed and the Faculty of (Catholic) Theology was expelled from the University of Zagreb. This was especially dramatic since Theological Faculty, founded by Jesuits in 1669, was one of the original faculties of the University of Zagreb. Religious matters were transferred from federal level to the level of republics, and in 1978 Socialist Croatia enacted the Law on the Legal Status of Religious Communities which were granted civil law rights and became legal persons. The position of the Catholic Church was improved under the Pope Paul VI when diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and the Holy See were established. Generally speaking the situation for the Catholic Church and most other religious communities was pretty bad: many priests and religious people suffered and had been tortured; many of them prosecuted and killed, including our Archbishop Blessed Aloysius Stepinac. The fact that Blessed Aloysius Stepinac held office during Pavelić’s regime was one of the accusations of Socialist prosecutors of Yugoslavia in the trial against the beloved Croatian Cardinal who saved numerous Serbs, Jews and others and under extremely heavy consequences managed to resist the regime and Pavelić himself. There is important remark made by American historian Michael Phayer that “no one in the European Catholic Clergy so clearly spoke against Nazi crimes as Blessed Stepinac and the Dutch Catholic Cardinal Johannes de Jong”. St. John Paul II beatified him in 1998 during his papal visit and pilgrimage to Croatia and the St. Mary of Bistrica Shrine. Until 1966 there was no agreement between the Holy See and Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia in which the Socialist Republic of Croatia was an integral part. In 1966 a Protocol on relationships between SFRY and the Vatican was signed but there was no mention of chaplaincy. 

Only after 1991 in the new Croatian Republic, a new era began for relationships between the State and Catholic Church and other recognised religious communities.

Vanja-Ivan Savić

Savić, V.-I. (2019). State and Church in Croatia, in G. Robbers (ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 240-244


Croatia is predominantly Catholic with few traditional religious groups and a wide spectrum of smaller religious communities spread through the country. Religious life started to flourish again after the dissolution of former Yugoslavia and Croatian independence in 1991 and after decades of repression, especially against the Catholic Church which was also the bearer of national identity and a sign of resistance towards the Communist regime. Historically, on the Croatian soil the Catholic Church has been the most important religious community as the last Catholic outpost before Byzantium and Islam (antemurale christianitatis). During the 20th century the Catholic Church was repressed firstly in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, despite the fact that almost 40% of its population was Catholic. A concordat with the Holy See was not signed, while other traditional communities concluded similar arrangements. During the second World War, the Catholic Church was again under pressure and the majority of Croatian clergy did their best to help people and minorities, especially Jews. 

Former Yugoslavia was very much against religion, but cultural shifts following the fall of the Berlin Wall brought religious freedoms to the newborn state. Croatia has signed four international treaties with the Holy See and those agreements provided the pattern for the stipulation of agreements with other religious communities. The Serbian Orthodox Church, the Muslim and Jewish communities as well as few other traditional religious groups were recognized automatically, and all other religious groups which have more than 500 members and exist as legal entities can be recognized according to the State’s major legislation in the field, the Law on Legal Status of Religious Communities

The State concluded numerous contracts on questions of mutual interest with many religious groups, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, and Protestant. All of them have access to public institutions like schools, hospitals or penitentiaries and religious education is guaranteed for all the children whose parents opt to include it in the school curriculum (although this is obviously many times unfeasible for logistical reasons). Religious communities enjoy tax privileges and are also funded from the State budget according to the number of believers. The Muslim community in Croatia, recognized as an official religion in 1914 (only two years after Islam recognition in Austria), is well-integrated and Muslim leaders often state that the way in which the Islamic community is accepted and treated in Croatia could become a model for other countries.

Religious freedom in Croatia is highly respected and this could be a “Croatian export product”. Most religious groups endorse the models of relation with the state that have been developed for the Catholic Church and seek a space within that framework for themselves. The Croatian constitution prescribes the separation of Church and State and guarantees equality of religious communities and freedom of religious life, but does not exclude cooperation: the state relies on the activities of religious communities and recognizes their importance for social cohesion through the vertical dialogue with the state and the horizontal dialogue which flows between religious communities themselves.

                                                                                         Vanja-Ivan Savić




Data and information concerning religious demography are provided by 

Johnson, T. M., Grim, B. J. (eds.)(2024). World Religion Database. Leiden-Boston: Brill

General information on minority issues (including some references to religious or belief ones) can be found at the page devoted to Croatia in

Minority Rights Group International, World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 

Information on the registered religious communities can be found at

Register of Religious Communities in Croatia  

A report on the Croatian legal system and government policies about freedom of religion (with some references to religious or belief minorities) is provided in

U.S. Department of State: Office of International Religious Freedom. 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom: Croatia   

The text of the “Law on legal position of religious communities” (2002) can be found at

An analysis of State-religions relations is provided by 

Mujadžević, D. (2019). Status of Religious Communities (Croatia), in J. S. Nielsen, S. Ferrari, et al. (eds.), Annotated Legal Documents on Islam in Europe Online. Leiden: Brill, Vol. 6

Savić, V.-I. (2019). State and Church in Croatia, in G. Robbers (ed.), State and Church in the European Union. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 239-264

Savić, V.-I. (2020). It works better if it is not too secularised: the Croatian constitutional model for regulating state–church relations, in P. T. Babie, N. G. Rochow, & B. G. Scharffs (eds.), Freedom of Religion or Belief: Creating the Constitutional Space for Fundamental Freedoms. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, pp. 260-282

Savić, V. I. (2015, April). Still Fighting God in the Public Arena: Does Europe Pursue the Separation of Religion and State Too Devoutly or Is It Saying It Does Without Really Meaning It?

Staničić, F. (2014). The Legal Status of Religious Communities in Croatian Law. Zbornik PFZ, 64(2), pp. 225-254

Zrinščak, S., Marinović Jerolimov, D., Marinović, A., & Ančić, B. (2014). Church and State in Croatia: Legal Framework, Religious Instruction, and Social Expectations, in S. P. Ramet (ed.), Religion and politics in post-socialist central and southeastern Europe: challenges since 1989. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 131-154 



1 promotion of rights
0 respect of international standards
-1 restriction of rights
1 low equality
0 equal treatment of RBMs
0 no gap between religious majority and minorities
-1 high gap between religious majority and minorities


(source: World Religion Database, 2021)