The vanishing Catholics of Bosnia

By  Erica Zlomislic, Catholic Register Special
  • March 30, 2009
{mosimage}HAMILTON, Ont. - He’s a Catholic bishop who has had his life threatened several times, seen his flock forcibly displaced, endured the bombing of his churches and the ransacking of sacred objects in his diocese.

Yet none of this has deterred Bishop Franjo Komarica (pronounced Franyo Komaritza) from his spiritual vocation and recent mission — insisting that the international community help Catholics who were expelled during the 1990s war in Bosnia-Hercegovina be permitted to return to their homes

“We are in a very difficult situation,” says Komarica, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. “Many Catholics want to come home but local and state authorities, under the permission of the international community, are making it impossible for people to return.”

The 63-year-old bishop visited southern Ontario’s Bosnian-Croat Catholics from March 15-23 at the invitation of Hamilton’s Holy Cross parish pastor Fr. Marijan Mihokovic.

Many of the people the bishop encountered in Ontario were from his diocese. He calls it one of the most widespread dioceses in the world, referring to the parishioners expelled from the region who now live across Europe, North America and Australia.

The bishop uses an analogy to explain the situation of Bosnian Catholics.

“It’s like Quebecers coming to Toronto and kicking out all the residents while telling them this is now our city. Further to this, the Torontonians would have no recourse or protection under the law or country. It’s unjust.”

Komarica says Bosnian-Croat Catholics are denied basic human rights compared to Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, and that is a major obstacle to their safe return. He says in many cases the state refuses to provide traditionally Catholic areas such basics as electricity, water and other infrastructure.

“Why are we Catholics not considered equal citizens of Bosnia-Hercegovina?” he asks. “Why do we not have the right to live like equal citizens in our homeland and not like slaves?”

Before the war, the bishop’s diocese of Banja Luka in north-western Bosnia had 120,000 Catholics. Today, there are only 37,797. That number continues to dwindle. Where the war forced people to flee the violence, a new wave of émigrés is fleeing economic and political turmoil, leaving a diocese primarily populated with the elderly.

 “The oldest faith tradition in Bosnia, Catholicism, will be wiped off the map in a matter of years,” says Komarica.

The bishop’s shrinking diocese is also divided politically. It falls between two “states” created with the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995 — a Bosnian-Serb entity known as “Republika Srpska” and a combined Bosnian-Muslim and Bosnian-Croat entity called the “Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina.” Both entities are within the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina and have structures of government and representation in which the Bosnian Croat-Catholics are outnumbered and outvoted.

“When Catholics ask elected politicians to help them with building schools, bridges, roads and infrastructure, the residents are told to go to me,” says Komarica.  “I am not the government and am pleading for the state to care for its citizens regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation.”

The diocese, with the assistance of the Bishop’s Conference of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Caritas, the Catholic agency for aid and development, has assumed many Catholic projects rejected by the state. They have built schools, health clinics, a senior’s facility and have provided food, school supplies and clothing. The bishop’s residence has been transformed into a clinic and ambulance service. There is also a plan to start a diocesan radio station.

“I am appealing to Catholics of all cultural traditions to please help us promote western principles of democracy and equality here,” says Komarica. The bishop says he needs both financial and political aid.

Although the Dayton Agreement ended the fighting, the bishop says the peace accord rewarded war criminals and legitimized ethnic cleansing while punishing the victims of the war. Before the agreement was signed, Catholic opponents said it would legitimize ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Serb forces in the 1990s and lay the foundation for another war in the region.  One local politician recently said to the bishop, “While I am alive, not one Catholic will be allowed to return to this region.”

Bosnia-Hercegovina’s pre-war Catholic population numbered 830,000; today only 454,074 remain in the entire country. The number of historic churches, shrines, rectories, cemeteries and monasteries destroyed during the war is more than 1,000. In the bishop’s diocese, eight priests and one nun were murdered during the war.

(Zlomislic is a Toronto freelance writer.)

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