Church in Balkans Faces Uphill Battle


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ROME, NOV. 24, 2009 ( The diocese where Vinko Puljic became a priest used to have around 120,000 Catholics. Now that Puljic is a cardinal, the number of Catholics in his home diocese is down by around 60%.

The Bosnian prelate spoke to ZENIT about the challenges facing the Church in the former Yugoslavia, most notably, the dispersion of its members. The cardinal was in Rome to participate in last week's plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which focused on St. Paul and the "new areopagi."

"Before the war, in the Diocese of Banjaluka there were more than 120,000 Catholics. Today they have decreased to 35,000-40,000. Before the war, the Archdiocese of Sarajevo [where he is the archbishop] had 528,000 Catholics, today at most there are 213,000," he observed.

The cardinal noted how the return of displaced people continues to be problematic.

"Following the Dayton agreement, Bosnia was divided into two identities: the Srpska Republic and the Federation. Whereas in the latter, Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholics live together, Orthodox Serbians live almost exclusively in the Srpska Republic. In this area -- where at most 15,000 Catholics remain -- some 220,000 Catholics should return, but they are impeded by the lack of permission on the part of the Serbian authorities and by the difficulty with finding work and rebuilding their destroyed homes. Among those who have been able to return, many are elderly and they must be helped to survive."

The prelate said the biggest problem is recognition of the equality of rights between those belonging to different religious communities. "We are not all equal," said Cardinal Puljic. "In the Srpska Republic, Serbs prevail, in the Federation, Muslims. Catholics suffer the lack of equality of opportunity in many aspects, especially at the administrative level and in access to work."

For the cardinal, the bureaucratic issues translate into a daily, concrete reality.

"In a neighborhood of Sarajevo," he explained, "there has been a parish for 28 years but I haven't been able to build a church. I had permission for 10 years but I wasn't assigned a space, whereas [permits] are continually granted for the construction of mosques. Finally I have been assigned a small space, but much has to be paid and, moreover, underneath there is an infrastructure that must be transferred to another place, and this too is costly."

Trying to get along

Coexistence between the communities is threatened above all by outside influences, the cardinal suggested. "A group printed 100,000 books against Jesus Christ, which it distributed free among the Muslim population," he said. "When I complained to a Muslim religious leader because such a book doesn't help coexistence, he told me to ignore it and that was it.

"Petrodollars help to build many mosques and Muslim centers and cause a change of mentality: against Christianity, especially against Catholics. When there is a lack of respect for rights, fear filters in. We continue to talk with the interreligious council but it isn't easy to resolve such complex situations because there are three histories, one for each religious community, and each one tells its own."

Strange silence

Cardinal Puljic lamented that the international community also fails to help.

"At the end of October," he said, "the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said in Sarajevo that the objective of Turkish policy is the new emergence of the Ottoman empire in the Balkans, as in the 16th century: No voice in Europe or America was raised in protest. In Fiume and in Cologne mosques are permitted to be built and this is right, but why doesn't anyone see how Catholics in Sarajevo or in Turkey live? It is necessary to affirm reciprocity, not against any one, but a positive [reciprocity], for the good of all."

Nevertheless, the cardinal affirmed, the difficulties are unable to stop the Church in Bosnia.

"There are now 15 of our inter-ethnic institutes, 'Schools for Europe,' founded during and immediately after the war, and they have 5,000 pupils," he said. "And recently the Faculty of Theology of Sarajevo has been inserted in the state university and its diplomas are recognized by the Bosnian government."

"Our hope comes from God," Cardinal Puljic. "We are in his hands."