A Catholic’s Journey Through the Balkans

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013


            The Balkans will forever hold a spot in my heart; as cliché as it sounds, the region that just a few short weeks ago I knew absolutely nothing about has made a lasting impact on my life. The people we met and the conflicts we faced forced my mind to venture to places it rarely does. How could a region laced with memories of such intense struggles be home to such kind, gracious individuals? How could these individuals live in harmony, for lack of a better word, with people associated with organizations accused of murdering their wives, children, brothers, or sisters? And how could the institution in which I put my faith be associated with some of the most wretched war crimes? In past years, the Catholic Church has found itself facing accusations regarding sex abuse scandals and money laundering, but in the 1990’s, clergymen were involved in events associated with the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans. Of course, for every terrible accusation the Church faces, there is a contradictory tale of valor accompanied by sincere compassion. So, where does this leave me on my personal journey?

            The history surrounding the conflict within the Balkans is entirely too rich to cover in a mere ten pages. Multiple volumes could be filled with information pertaining to the Balkan wars of the 1990’s. I think it is important to provide a brief history of the conflict, namely the religious divisions, which serve as the motivation for the monstrosities committed by the Catholic Church throughout the Balkans. In his lecture, Dr. Roberto Belloni names two main approaches to the failure of Yugoslavia: ancient hatreds, which led to unavoidable conflict, and conflict created by human agents (Belloni).

            The inhabitants of the region formerly called Yugoslavia face language and religious barriers, but no real racial barrier exist. Religion serves as the primary cause for division, and the conflict surrounding religion dates back to 1054. At first, the entire region shared the same Christian beliefs. In 1054, however, Christianity split; Orthodox Christians, largely Serbs, inhabited the East while Roman Catholics, largely Croats, inhabited the West. Muslims slowly entered the religious scene in the Balkans, as the third party, when the Christian and Ottoman empires clashed. In 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo Poljie, the Ottoman Empire defeated the Christians; thus, Muslims dominated the region. The mass conversion to Islam took place in 1463 when the Turkish conquered Bosnia (Belloni).

            In 1918, at the end of World War I, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the First Yugoslavia was formed. The basis of this formation was to keep the Slavic people united and strong. Within the First Yugoslavia, Serbs were the politically dominant people. Serbian dominance created unrest and resentment among Croats, which led to the creation of a right wing extremist group, the Ustasa. The invasion of Hitler during World War II resulted in the transfer of power from the Serbs to the Ustasa, or the Croats, and the fall of the First Yugoslavia in 1941. The Ustasa began taking revenge on all non-Croats in the region, especially the Serbs. Their goal was to kill 1/3, expel 1/3, and convert 1/3 to Catholicism(Belloni).           

Two main guerrilla units rose: the Chetniks, who were Serb royalists, and the Partisans, who were led by Tito. The objective of the Partisans was to liberate the Serbs from Nazi control, ultimately expelling the Nazis from the Balkans. The transfer of power from Nazi hands to Tito and the Partisans led to the formation of Yugoslavia number two, often referred to as Tito’s Yugoslavia, in 1946. Tito’s Yugoslavia presented the first communist constitution and exemplified a federal structure consisting of six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Belloni).

            Dr. Belloni suggested four reasons for the fall of Tito’s Yugoslavia all of which further divided the region, which had been fighting the threats brought on by division for centuries. First, the constitution allowed for decentralization by distributing power among six separate states. Second, the economy suffered with an increase of inflation, unemployment, and debt, leading to further regional separation because the North was seen as “rich” while the South was considered “poor”. Third, nationalist conflicts lead to further division within the region. Finally, the communist beaurocrat, Slobodan Milošević, served as the primary human agent who brought about failure. Milosevic exploited national differences, creating fear among the various states of the region (Belloni).

            While analyzing the intricate web of history surrounding the Balkans, it is critical to recall the difference in religious preference that existed. For centuries, conflict has existed between various regions and there associated religion. From the split of Christianity, for example, Croats were assumed to be Catholic and Serbs Orthodox; thus any altercations involving Croats and Serbs naturally involved the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Religion and government proceedings are intricately intertwined in some way in every nation, but evidence of this intermingling is overwhelming in the Balkans. In Peace & Reconciliation: In Search of Shared Identity, Pauline Kollontai discusses the importance of religion within society and references its “identity forming potential”:

“Religion can be linked with nationhood and national identity. According to context and interaction with other identity-forming elements (language, ethnicity, politics, culture, etc.) religious belief systems are said ‘to have a particular identity forming potential… Religion tells you where you belong and where to proceed’. On this basis religious identity can be on a variant between inclusive and exclusive.”

Thus, religion creates distinct boundaries between people; the boundaries are created based on the idea of national and ethnic identities. Religion can unintentionally nurture intense nationalistic feelings. In the case of the Balkans, nationalism was taken to an extreme and seen as reason to expel the “outsiders”, resulting in genocide to achieve ethnic cleansing. Pre-existing tensions between Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs were re-invoked in the 1990’s and allegiance to ethnicity became religious based. Kollontai writes, “As Little recalls during one of his visits to Bosnia in 1996, one religious leader explained to him, ‘Brother, you must understand, here religion is nationality, religion is ethnicity, religion is everything’” (Kollontai 61-71).

            Clearly, religion, especially within the Balkans, holds much importance; it is the basis of individual identity but also the source of conflict. The conflict of the region has existed for many centuries and will likely exist for many more, but that does not justify the atrocities committed by church officials (be they Catholic, Orthodox, or Muslim) during the Balkan wars of the 1990’s. There is no real justification for killing another human being; nationalistic motives are certainly no exception. The fact that clergymen either facilitated, indirectly or directly, the violence associated with the Balkan wars is disheartening to say the least.

            There are, of course, accounts of war crimes committed by officials belonging to all three churches, but I am focusing on the Catholic Church. During the 1990’s, the Catholic Church was associated with the hostile steps taken towards ethnic cleansing of the region. The Roman Catholic Church of Croatia offered no assistance when religious nationalist, Franjo Tudman, altered the Croatian constitution, stripping Croats of the few liberties granted to them during communism. Tudman removed all non-Croatians from positions of power and slowly removed other basic rights, ultimately dehumanizing all non-Croats, with his number one target being the Muslim population. The Tudman administration has been associated with genocide and various other war crimes. Further, members of clergy were reportedly seen joining Croatian troops in battle, engaging in the slaughter that occurred in an attempt to “cleanse” the region. (Kayongo) During the war, events pertaining to ethnic cleansing of the region were planned and executed from Medjugorje, which served as the Croatian Defense Council’s (Hrvatsko Vijeće Obrane, HVO) home base in the region. The HVO threatened to destroy the homes of anyone harboring Muslims. Ultimately, Croat nationalist forces displaced or killed thousands of Muslims throughout the regions and attempted to destroy proof that they ever existed (Wiinikka-Lydon 1-13).

            The religious pilgrimage site of Medjugorje, located in Bosnia-Hercegovina, has surpassed Fatima and Lourdes in terms of attractiveness as a Marian devotional site. In 1981, six local children made claims that the Virgin Mary appeared to them as the “Queen of Peace”. In recent years, the site has gained additional attention based on the corruption surrounding it. The story of Medjugorje is far more complex than many realize or care to accept. As Joseph Wiinikka-Lydon wrote in, The Ambivalence of Medjugorje, “The Medjugorje phenomenon’s sacred resources, in addition to its financial resources and effects, were used by violent Croat nationalist groups to support their ambitions during the war.” Mary became the advocate fidelissima Croatiae, or “the most faithful advocate of Croatia”, and a symbol of strength for Croat nationalists. Nazi symbols adorned merchant shops in Medjugorje and busts of Franjo Tudman stood in tandem with statues of the Blessed Mother. Tudjman, at the time of his death, was accused of war crimes equally as brutal as those committed by the infamous Slobodan Milosevic. Furthermore, during the war, the Croat and Bosnian-Croat armies utilized Marian symbols, linking Mary to the military (Wiinikka-Lydon 1-13).

            Due to tourism, while the rest of the region suffered economically, Medjugorje faced no such issues. Money obtained as a result of tourism at Medjugorje went directly to support the HVO. In one specific case of fraud, the British organization, “Medjugorje Appeal”, reportedly raised £20 million for humanitarian aid. The funds, which were intended to aid a local orphanage, were actually used to buy supplies for and finance missions of the HVO, including the destruction of non-catholic religious sites. Those involved in the fraudulent acts mentioned above included Ivan Dragicevic, one of the six original Medjugorje seers, as well as two Franciscans, Fathers Slavko Barbaric and Jozo Zovko. For the local Franciscan Friars of Medjugorje, the Marian sightings served not only as religious inspiration but also as a source of power for the order (Wiinikka-Lydon 1-13).

            While Serbian concentration camps became the center of focus for the media during the Bosnian war, the Croat nationalists constructed multiple camps all within a two hour radius of Medjugorje. The most notorious camp, Dretelj, was located a mere hour drive from Medjugorje. The camp, which was run by the Croatian Defence Forces (HOS) and later by the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) during the Bosnian War, housed mostly Muslims. The prisoners were beat, tortured, forced to work under terrible conditions, subjected to terrible sexual acts, and forced to sing Croat nationalist songs. Food and water were scarce within the camp, and the imprisoned often resorted to drinking their own urine. Although there is no solid evidence directly linking members of the Franciscan order to the atrocities associated with the concentration camps, there are reports of Franciscans joining Croat nationalist forces in war and in some cases mobilizing militia units (Wiinikka-Lydon 1-13).

            In January 1993, Pope John Paul II called an ecumenical conference in Assisi with the objective of praying for peace in the former Yugoslavia. The pope never even mentioned clergymen who supported or played an active role in the violent acts of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. (Clermont) Within the Balkans, in Croatia proper, and in Bosnia proper, the Catholic hierarchy was often quick to condemn Croat policies and brutal acts of the nationalist power. Archbishop Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo, for example, became a hero in a sense for condemning the idea of ethnic segregation. Herzegovina, however, existed as an exception; here the Franciscan clergy included a large number of ultra-nationalists. The city of Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina, remains divided despite efforts by the European Union to unite the region. A major opponent of reintegration is the provincial superior of the Franciscan order, Tomislav Pervan. Bishop Ratko Peric is also a known opponent of mosque reconstruction and the right to return of Muslim refugees. (Murad) Not only does the Catholic Church refuse to admit wrong doing, but there are still active members of clergy stirring the fire, so to speak, by rejecting ideas of ethnic desegregation within the torn region.

            Of course, for every terrible tale of the Catholic Church’s involvement in the genocide that occurred in the Balkans, there is an equally riveting tale of bravery and compassion shown by the clergymen of the region. We had the honor of meeting with one such individual, Friar Ivo Markovic. Upon meeting the jovial friar, it was immediately obvious that there was something special about him. Ivo Markovic was born in 1950 in Susanj, in central Bosnia. The second child of seven, Ivo was born into a devout Catholic family. Ivo recalls being first attracted to the Franciscan order because, “they were people who lived humbly. They were good preachers, they were not selfish, they worked for the people.” He went on to study at the Franciscan Faculty of Theology in Sarajevo and was ordained in 1976. In 1984, Ivo earned a MA in pastoral theology from the Zagreb Catholic Faculty. After serving as a parish priest for several years, he was sent to work at the Faculty of Theology in Sarajevo, where he resided when war broke out (Article by Masters student at Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame).

            Friar Markovic reminisces, “when the war started, when the bombs started falling, it was a big shock to me. I couldn’t believe that people could do that, that anybody could shell Sarajevo”. In early 1991, the Faculty of Theology was occupied by Serb paramilitary forces, and all the Franciscans were held captive. Ivo and the other Franciscans were subjected to hearing about the slaughter of Muslims by the soldiers that held them captive. He recalls hearing about the killings of men, women, and even children during his first encounter with pure evil. After the Franciscans were released from the Faculty of Theology, Ivo returned to his childhood home, where life was still somewhat normal. At the onset of confrontation between Croat Cahtolics and Bosniak Muslims, Ivo got very involved. He infiltrated the armies on both sides, forcing people to talk in an attempt to prevent fighting. He dismissed his fears simply believing that no one would kill him because they had no reason. In late 1992, Ivo was directed by the Franciscans to work in Zagreb for Christian Information Services where he was actively involved in relaying honest, unbiased information to outsiders about the war. He even took visitors into Bosnia to experience the culture and spend time with the people (Article by Masters student at Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame).

            In June 1993, Ivo learned that his father, who had often worked with him on his march toward peace, and many other members of his family had been killed and his village destroyed by the Bosnian army. These tragic events lead to questioning by Ivo. Should he join forces to defend the people and region he loved? What had he done wrong? Did he approach the entire situation with the wrong mindset? Instead of preaching for peace, should he have been preparing people to defend themselves? Ivo says that through prayer, after a short period of intense questioning and suffering, he emerged and realized that he must continue in his fight against evil because it was in fact evil that had taken everything from him. Just days after receiving word of the tragic events, Ivo heard about an event taking place at the mosque in Zagreb. He called upon Croat Catholic students in the choir he worked with to accompany him to sing for peace (Article by Masters student at Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame).

            The small group of young Catholic students singing at the mosque laid the foundation for the choir Pontanima, which Ivo founded in Sarajevo after the war. Ivo conjured up the idea after returning to a city “of bombed-out buildings and people who carried heavy burdens of sorrow”. He wanted to add a sense of liveliness to church services at St. Anthony’s, but struggled to fill a choir. There were not enough Catholic singers; so, Ivo and Josip Katavic, the conductor, made the critical decision to allow people with other religious affiliations to join the choir. Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, and atheist were all invited to sing together in Ivo’s choir. The goal of the choir was to, “bring together through song the three springs of monotheistic religion: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam… and also to create a community of people who would sing together, socialize, and become a community.” The singers developed an intense bond as they sang Western Christian music together, slowly incorporating Eastern Orthodox and Muslim songs. The choir grew from 12 to more than 60 members. The group, which now travels all over agreed on the name Pontanima. The name, which comes from the Latin words pons, “bridge”, and anima, “soul”, could not be more fitting seeing as the choir represents the bridge between Bosnia-Herzegovina’s ethno-religious communities (Article by Masters student at Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame).

As I mentioned previously, my travels through the Balkans forced me to face some tough issues. I absolutely fell in love. The region possessed such a rich culture scarred with memories of war, torture, and heartbreak, yet the people were extremely kind and welcoming. You may say I am being naïve, but I object. I know there are those within the region that saw us as the typical pesky tourists sticking our snobbish American snouts where they do not belong, but the vast majority of the individuals we came into personal contact with, if not all of them, were genuinely pleased to share their history with us and welcomed our own stories. First, it is hard for me to fathom that just over a decade ago, the entire region was ruled by militant, power hungry forces and war. How could these people that are so warm and welcoming have experienced such trials and tribulations? In America, if we do so much as say something offensive, we are written off for years. The fact that I as a Catholic could sit with a Muslim man and carry on a conversation with him thinking nothing of it, despite the atrocities his ancestors faced at the hands of mine is mind blowing. Second, it disgusts me to think of the Catholic Church’s involvement, both directly and indirectly, in the genocide that took place in the Balkans. In my mind, there is no justification for clergymen taking up arms against Muslims with Croatian forces. The series of fraudulent events surrounding Medjugorje ignites fury within me. The city as a Marian devotional site was manipulated; money that was meant to be used for humanitarian aid was used to purchase weapons that furnished the Croat militia in their quest for ethnic cleansing. There were concentration camps located all around Medjugorje. The crimes and killing and torture that took place at these camps were funded by monetary aid from Medjugorje, the Marian devotional site. That is contradictory to me. How can the church even be associated with such atrocities? Clergymen, especially the Franciscan Friars of Medjugorje, and even the pope were aware of the violence occurring and did essentially nothing. I am in no way attempting to discount the actions of the brave members of the Church, like Friar Markovic, that took a stand; it gives me some comfort to think about such amazing people, but the fact that the Church chose to overlook the fraudulent activities occurring is disheartening. To this day, the fact that there has been no true, formal apology by the Catholic Church for the events that took place in the Balkans, especially Bosnia, in the 1990’s is even more unsettling. 

            So, where does this leave me on my personal journey? To be honest, very confused and a bit outraged. Throughout our journey in the Balkans, on multiple occasions, people spoke of the separation between faith and the institution. Aida Omanovic stressed nothing different. “Religion is human,” she said, “but faith is yours”. The institution should have no influence on your personal faith. For example, when Aida spoke of the instances involving the Franciscans, she first noted the good the order had blessed the region with. Aida told me she grew up near the church in Mostar that we visited and remembers the Friars as, “those who preserved literature and art”. They were the keepers of written word in her mind. The order was infiltrated slowly with “bad seeds”; individual friars were to be held accountable for their actions, not the order as whole or the Catholic Church as a whole (Omanovic).

Growing up, I attended Catholic pre-school, elementary school, high school, and I currently attend Spring Hill, which is obviously a Jesuit institution. I have always been very involved both at school and within our parish. The Church as an institution has always been a part of my religious journey; thus it is a difficult concept to separate my personal faith from the institution. I have always been taught, and never been given any reason to think differently, that I can rely on all members of the Church, including the priest, for anything. The hierarchy exists as a support system for all members of the Catholic Church. But how can the institution that I have grown up being a proud member of be involved in atrocities such as genocide? I know that absolutely no one can take a way my faith and nothing changes what I believe in. Nothing changes the principles taught by Jesus Christ that became the foundation of the Catholic Church. However, I still struggle personally with separating the sometimes cruel institution from my personal faith.














Works Cited

Article by Masters student at Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame

Belloni, Roberto. "Yugoslavia A (Very) Brief History." Historical background on the Balkans. Bologna. 14 06 2012. Lecture.

Clermont, Betty . "Medjugorje Chap. 4 – The Bosnian War." THE OPEN TABERNACLE: HERE COMES EVERYBODY. worldpress, 14032011. Web. 01 Jul 2012. <http://opentabernacle.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/medjugorje-chap-4-the-bosnian-war/>.

Kayongo, Jennifer. "Chapter I: Religion’s Role in Yugoslavia during and following the Communist Era." The History and Analysis of the Conflict in the former Yugoslavia: 1991-1995. EDGE: ethics of development in a global environment, Web. 01 Jul. 2012. <http://www.stanford.edu/class/e297c/war_peace/confrontation/hformeryugoslavia.html>.

Kollontai, Pauline. "Religion as a Toll For Waging Peace: Theoretical Perspectives in the Context of Bosnia-Herzegovina." Peace & Reconciliation In Search of Shared Identity . Ed. Sebastian Kim, Ed. Pauline Kollontai and Ed. Greg HeylandAshgate, 2008. 61-71. Print.

Murad, Abdal-Hakim. "The Churches and the Bosnian War." MASUD.CO.UK. n. page. Web. 01 Jul. 2012. <http://masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/the_churches_and_the_bosnian_war.htm>.

Omanovic, Aida. Personal Interview. 18 06 2012.

Wiinikka-Lydon, Joseph. "The Ambivalence of Medjugorje: The Dynamics of Violence, Peace, and Nationalism at a Catholic Pilgrimage Site during the Bosnian War (1992-1995)." Journal of Religion & Society . 12. (2010): 1-13. Print.