VATICAN CITY—At the highest levels of the Church in Rome and in the United States, and in the largest Catholic charity organizations in the world, Catholics responded quickly to the crisis in Kosovo when NATO forces began bombing Serbian targets March 24.
Pope John Paul II and U.S. cardinals worked separately to find avenues of peace, and Catholic agencies delivered aid to help some of the tens of thousands of ethnic Albanian refugees fleeing war-ravaged homes and Serbian atrocities throughout Holy Week and Easter Week.
The Vatican responded quickly after the bombing began. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, convened an urgent meeting March 30 attended by ambassadors of 16 NATO and U.N. Security Council nations to plead the case for an end to military operations. He called for immediate delivery of humanitarian aid and the setting up of a new peace process involving the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
The next day Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, assistant secretary of state for relations with states, flew to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, to meet April 1 with top religious and civil authorities and deliver a personal message from Pope John Paul II to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Cardinals Lobby Clinton
Citing the Holy See's suggestions to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.N. Security Council, all eight American cardinals called U.S. allies and Milosevic to return to the negotiating table. They urged an immediate end to the Kosovo war and convocation of a peace conference.
“The efforts of these negotiations must seek to guarantee the populations of Kosovo a degree of autonomy which respects their legitimate aspirations, according to history and law,” they said.
In separate letters to Milosevic and U.S. President Clinton, the cardinals quoted the Pope's words: “There is always time for peace. It is never too late to meet again and negotiate.”
The letters were sent out by Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who released the texts at a press conference in Boston on April 1.
“The rhetoric and actions of war will not bring all the parties to a negotiating table without further, incalculable loss,” Cardinal Law told journalists.
The letter to Milosevic urged “an immediate cessation of Serbian military and police operations against the population of Kosovo and your government's cooperation in accord with international conventions with those agencies wishing to provide emergency assistance to the population of Kosovo.”
The cardinals added, “At the same time, we have written to President Clinton asking for a cessation of NATO bombing.”
To Clinton the cardinals expressed “profound concern for the deteriorating situation in the Balkan region.”
They acknowledged that the NATO military intervention followed Yugoslavia's “regrettable refusal” to accept compromise peace proposals that would restore autonomy to Kosovo, but they added, “The unfolding human tragedy demands immediate attention.”
They told Clinton they had asked Milosevic to halt all military and police operations against Kosovars. “We ask you to use your influence to bring about a cease-fire,” they added.
Besides Cardinal Law, signers of the letters were Cardinals John J. O'Connor of New York, Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, William H. Keeler of Baltimore, James A. Hickey of Washington, Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Adam J. Maida of Detroit and Francis E. George of Chicago.
In a separate statement March 31, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for an immediate halt to Yugoslavia's “unjustifiable and intolerable aggression and ethnic cleansing by Kosovar civilians,” to be followed by suspension of NATO's bombing campaign.
He called for Yugoslavia to open its doors immediately to international agencies, relief organizations and human rights monitors, and urged a peace process that would include protection of minority rights and enforcement by an international peacekeeping force.
There had been no news for more than a week from three Franciscan friars of the Djakovica monastery in Kosovo, located just a few miles from the Albanian border. According to the Holy See's agency Fides, the Serbs occupied the monastery to defend themselves from the NATO bombings directed against nearby military structures.
There are eight Franciscan friaries in the war zone, some in areas bombed by NATO. Others, like that of Djakovica, are close to Serbian barracks and, because of this, run the risk of being taken by force by Yugoslav soldiers. The Franciscans of Grahovica, whose monastery is near the barracks, have already had to move.
The Franciscans, who have been in the territory of former Yugoslavia for centuries, are strongly represented among the 330 men and women Catholic religious who now work in Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Catholic relief agencies have also increased aid to the region, especially to help stem the rising tide of refugees fleeing into neighboring countries.
As 200 tons of food and aid were being rushed by NATO troops to the refugees, forces from Britain, France and Italy were already setting up tents at Brazda, Macedonia, where eventually about 100,000 refugees will take shelter. The tent city will serve as one of two holding centers before the refugees are ferried to airports and flown to other countries.
The United States has announced that it will take in about 20,000 refugees. Other NATO members said they would receive a combined total of 100,000 others.
Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services has pledged an additional $600,000 to its efforts to assist refugees fleeing Kosovo to Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Montenegro. Funds will also be targeted to reach the minority Muslim population within Yugoslavia.
The Catholic Medical Mission Board, based in New York, has announced that it will assist refugees from Kosovo and other victims of the war with medicines and medical supplies.
“We are working with Caritas Internationalis, which is coordinating relief efforts with local Caritas agencies ... in Albania, Croatia and Macedonia,” said Terry Kirch, Catholic Medical Board executive director. “We expect to be airlifting medicines and providing other assistance very soon.”
—ZENIT contributed to this story.