The guns have been silent in Bosnia and Herzegovina for 23 years. However, according to Bishop Franjo Komarica, the country is like a powder keg. Head of the diocese of Banja Luka in the northern part of the country, the 72-year-old does not believe in beating about the bush, particularly when the discussion turns to the Catholic Croat minority. He believes that Catholic Croats are still being kept from returning and that they are disadvantaged economically, socially and religiously. He is making serious charges against the governments of Europe: they are turning a blind eye to the religious discrimination.
In an interview with Tobias Lehner during a visit to the headquarters of the pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Germany, Bishop Komarica discusses why a growing number of Catholics are leaving the country, but how, in spite of everything, the church is living reconciliation.
Tobias Lehner: Bishop Komarica, the Bosnian War officially came to an end in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords. But how are things really?
Bishop Franjo Komarica: The guns may be silent, but the war continues in other arenas. “Controlled chaos” reigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is my impression that neither the government nor the international community is interested in building up a constitutional state that guarantees equal rights to all ethnic groups and human rights also for minorities. Bosnia and Herzegovina are effectively still a semi-protectorate of the United Nations. A part of the state authority is exercised by a “High Commissioner” (since 2009, Austrian native Valentin Inzko; editor’s note). But he claims that his hands are tied in terms of the political developments in the country. The country remains divided into three ethnic groups: Croats, Serbs and Bosnians. The smallest of the ethnic groups, the vast majority of Croats are Catholic. They lean more towards Europe. The Serbs, most of them Orthodox, are very much under the influence of Russia. And the Muslim Bosnians are turning more and more towards Turkey and the Islamic world. This gives rise to dangerous centrifugal forces. And that is not only damaging to the country, but also to Europe!
What do you mean by this?
The hostilities between the Serbian and Bosnian people are purposefully being kept alive by forces outside of the country. The country continues to be a powder keg! And the Croats are caught in between. Hundreds of thousands of them were displaced during the war, and today, more than twenty years after the fact, they still cannot return, even though the Dayton Accords guarantees them the right to return. The opposite has happened: many are still leaving for other countries. The Conference of Bishops has repeatedly asked for the Dayton Accords to be amended to give the Croat minority more security. They have yet to be accorded equality.
Why is the Catholic minority receiving unequal treatment?
The Croats are not being treated as a constitutive ethnic group in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many foreign governments also recognise only two ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Serbs and the Bosnians. This has grave consequences, as is shown by the example of the Republika Srbska (the Republika Srbska was established by the Dayton Accords as the “second entity” of the federal state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is made up of extensive areas of land in the northern and eastern parts of the country; editor’s note). Only about five per cent of the Catholics who once lived in the 69 parishes that existed in this region before the war have returned. In other parts of the country, Catholics are still leaving. The Croats receive neither political, nor legal, nor financial support. It is almost impossible for them to rebuild their homes or find work. They are the subjects of systemic discrimination. This is badly damaging the entire country. The other religions agree, by the way. I recently talked with the Grand Mufti of Bosnia. He also says: “It is imperative that the Croats remain here!”
The highest-ranking Muslim in the country thus recognises the problem. Do his brothers and sisters in faith do so as well? It is currently being reported that the Muslims are becoming radicalised in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well …
Yes, this development does exist. But the threat to our very existence is even worse than the religious discrimination. To be explicit: we can maintain our faith even during persecution – and we have done so. But when the Catholics have no right to their homeland and to their property, this is even more destructive. One example: the mayor of one town in my diocese said to me, “You may not build a church here.” Even though a Catholic parish had been located there before the war! He did not have the right to do so, because religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And so I lodged a protest. But it was turned down by the next highest authority as well. Finally, I went to the representative of OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, responsible for coordinating the reconstruction process; editor’s note). He said to me, “Bishop, I forbid you to build a church!” I showed him pictures of the old parish church as well as a picture of its priest who was murdered during the war. He neither apologized, nor approved the church building project. This is an open war against the Catholic Church. I was repeatedly told, “You Catholics need to get out of this country!”
Outside of the country, little is known about the dire circumstances of the Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What are they asking the international community to do?
Politicians need to finally acknowledge what is happening and condemn the severe discrimination that is taking place right in the middle of Europe. This is particularly true for the Christians. I expect anyone who is serious about their faith to support the disenfranchised people of my homeland – in word and deed. Our appeals have not been heard up until this point. And there have been so many of them! Quo vadis, Europe? Quo vadis, Christianity in Europe? If we just look the other way and tolerate this kind of development on our own doorstep, how do we want to help other people understand our Christian values?
So much hate and discord has been sown in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In spite all of this, what can the Catholic church do to reunite the society?
We Catholics are the oldest community of faith in the country. We feel it is our duty to help our homeland restore a just and permanent peace! Most of our reconciliation work is carried out through our social services and education, particularly our Catholic schools. And that despite politically being punished for our commitment! That is why I am so grateful to Catholic charities such as Aid to the Church in Need because they draw attention to our circumstances and support us. I will continue to give voice to the truth, even though I have already been physically assaulted because of it. Our opponents will win if we remain silent!
The worldwide pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need has been helping Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina for more than three decades. Most of the aid it has provided has been used to rebuild churches, convents and monasteries that were destroyed during the war and renovate a seminary. ACN also provides funding for the acquisition of vehicles for pastoral care, the development of pastoral centres, the training of priests and religious and for subsistence aid for contemplative orders. Church youth and press work are also among the projects it supports.