Losing their religion

Ten years after the civil war, Catholics in Bosnia live amid violence, discrimination and poverty. They say the West is ignoring their plight. Marcus Tanner reports from Sarajevo
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The Independent Online

Bisera, which means "pearl", lives in a lean-to shack in Sarajevo's Vratnik district, in a state of poverty that is shocking even in impoverished Bosnia. Too ill to talk much - she has flu - this Bosnian Catholic mother of seven mopes around the squalid, freezing shack, her children stacked on and around the one bed they all share.

If she had not bumped into her friend, and now benefactor, Ingrid, a German working in Sarajevo, she might well be dead and her family dispersed to the winds. Having done the rounds of the local housing offices with her, Ingrid is angry on Bisera's behalf. "You wouldn't believe it, but Bisera is not even classed as 'at risk' because she isn't literally disabled," Ingrid fumes. "If she was the widow of a Green Beret [a Muslim fighter during the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo] she would have had a council flat by now. I can't help thinking that she is from the wrong community."

Not half a mile away, in the relative splendour of a 19th-century palazzo, Bosnia's Catholic primate, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, is also convinced that he is from the wrong community. Ten years after the Dayton accord ended civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the cardinal insists that Catholic Croats have been written out of the script, the forgotten victims of a tacit international agreement to solve the Bosnian conundrum by dividing the land between Muslims, or Bosniaks, and the Orthodox Serbs.

"There were 60,000 Catholics in Sarajevo before the war, and just 18,000 now," he says. "Last year alone, another 500 families left the city. It was one thing in the war with the Serb guns above our heads. If anything, we now face a still more perfidious enemy."

Cardinal Puljic unfurls a begging letter from a parishioner in Zenica, a returned refugee who says his Muslim neighbours beat him - and his wife - regularly. "When we complain about this sort of thing to Paddy Ashdown [High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina since May 1992] he doesn't take it seriously. The police don't protect Catholics, either. They call this sort of thing an 'incident'." Lord Ashdown's office, however, says that the church has a vital role to play in reconciliation.

Not everyone in the Bosnian church shares the cardinal's diagnosis of what ails the community, but no one can dispute that the Catholic church faces extinction in much of the country, outside a triangle of land in the barren hills of Herzegovina on the Croatian border, where Bosnian Croats rule the roost.

The cataclysmic decline of Catholicism in Sarajevo is reflected elsewhere. The north-western diocese of Banja Luka, most of which lies in the Republic of Srpska, is now only a ghost of its former self. But the Sarajevo archdiocese has also lost numbers on a massive scale - dropping from 528,000 before the war to 215,000 now. About 20 of the 142 parishes have very few communicants, and some have none at all. There were 48,000 Catholics in the 15 parishes in and around populous Derventa, in north Bosnia, before the war; now there are just 1,200.

Father Mato Zovkic, the vicar-general of the archdiocese, has watched the slow and painful death of the Bosnian church with compassion and helplessness. A priest in Sarajevo for more than 40 years, he saw his hopes rise at the end of the Communist era, only for them to collapse in the war and its unsatisfactory aftermath.

"The Serbs won't let returnees go home to the Republic of Srpska," he says, reading out a list of parishes in the north that now have hardly any communicants. "What returnees there are, are all elderly. In some villages no one comes to church. The children have gone to Croatia. Without a major change, this whole region will die out from a Catholic point of view."

Things are not much better in parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he says. "In the village of Obri, there has been not one wedding or baptism in seven years. We also face extinction when the elderly die out. The young have gone and will not return." While there have been gruesome murders, he says, the obstacles facing refugees are not always physical. "If returnees go back to Srpska, their children have to go to Serbian schools. But most Croats don't want their children learning only about Tsar Lazar and Uros and so forth. Then there is the question of jobs. People cannot return if they have nothing to do." Of the 220,000 Catholics who fled areas that now form the Republic of Srpska, only 15,000 have returned.

Not everyone is defensive about the church's prospects. Father Marko Orsolic, a round Friar Tuck of a Franciscan, engages cheerfully in dialogue with Muslims and Orthodox Serbs through Imec, the ecumenical group he set up. When I bring up the cardinal's charge that the international community favours the Muslims, he flaps a hand in irritation. "It's nonsense," he says, tucking into a plate of baklava. "The Muslims have built many mosques because they got huge donations from Islamic countries. Doubtless, the cardinal expected the same from Western countries and now he's disappointed."

Father Orsolic says that the church cannot complain about the plight of Catholics in central Bosnia and turn a blind eye to the fate of Muslims elsewhere. "We cannot ethnically cleanse Mostar and then expect to be protected in Sarajevo," he says. The Catholic church, he adds, is paying the price for a history of too-close ties to the forces of Croatian nationalism and their main party, the Croat Democratic Union. This has led, he believes, to an over-concentration on collective, rather than individual, human rights. "As religious people we need to support human rights, as we are all made in the image of God," he says. "It's the same God we are all worshipping, whether in a church, a synagogue or a mosque."

The Franciscans, he reminds me, have always had "differences" with the hierarchy. The order has been working in Bosnia since the 14th century, and a necklace of medieval friaries encircling the hills and valleys of central Bosnia testifies to their long presence in this land. For generations, after Bosnia's fall to the Ottomans in the 1460s, the Franciscans lived in, around and under more numerous and powerful Muslims. Never part of a ruling caste, they look on the church's present difficulties with a degree of equanimity born of centuries of experience.

The hierarchy, on the other hand, came back to Bosnia with the arrival of the Habsburgs in 1878 and, as Father Zovkic admits, the secular clergy recall the era with nostalgia. "We bloomed under Austria-Hungary; lots of investment and thousands of Catholics came in from all over the empire."

From 1881 to 1918, Archbishop Josip Stadler presided over the bloom that Father Zovkic recalls so fondly, when the percentage of Catholics rose from about 15 per cent to almost 25 per cent of Bosnia's population. Now that figure has collapsed to about 10 per cent, and everything Archbishop Stadler worked for appears to be in ruins.

When I ask Father Zovkic if he is tempted to despair, he shakes his head. "Where there are people who need me, I enjoy serving them," he says. "During the war [of the 1990s], my brothers used to call me from Croatia. 'Move out!' they said. But I didn't, for I wanted to share the church here with my fellow Catholics. I still do."

Marcus Tanner is a correspondent for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. This article first appeared in 'The Tablet'