LONDON—Catholics in Kosovo, many of whom had to flee from Serbian aggression earlier this year, now face ethnic cleansing at the hands of Muslims, a Catholic relief agency has charged.

“Priests and people fear for their lives and many have to flee from their homes to Croatia,” one priest wrote to Mary Doohan.

“Every day some armed Muslims march through our Croatian Catholic villages searching houses, taking possessions and inflicting grievous damage; families with children and the elderly are particularly at risk,” he continued.

Doohan is president of the United Kingdom-based charity, The Little Way Association. The group is alleging that Catholics have been murdered and forced to flee from their homes by their former Muslim neighbors.

According to The Little Way, which funds mission projects in the Third World and former Eastern Bloc countries, thousands of Catholics have fled to neighboring Croatia.

Doohan has appealed to supporters to help the country's beleaguered Catholics. Doohan, who is only the second British woman to be made a papal dame, told the Register, “Now that the conflict in Kosovo has ended and people are returning to their homes, a new danger has arisen for Catholics in this difficult area.”

Friendly History

She said there is no history of Catholics from the area ever having attacked their Muslim neighbors. On the contrary, they “have offered them both help and sympathy in their time of persecution,” said Doohan. But “because they are not Muslim, they have been identified with the Serb aggressors so the innocent Catholics are suffering reprisals.”

She added, “Some are having to seek exile suffering severe hardship, some have been killed and homes have been burnt.”

Another priest wrote Doohan: “I have never been so sad as on the feast of the Assumption when only 450 people attended the ceremonies instead of thousands of people as formerly. All are afraid because the Muslims, to whom we offered help and sympathy, have turned against us.”

He continued: “People are being killed and injured and I cannot understand how those who have themselves suffered can inflict such suffering on others.”

Doohan said that nuns in one Kosovar city had been warned not to wear their crucifixes by the Muslim community. “I cannot give you any names and locations to protect the priests and nuns concerned,” she said.

NATO Unaware

Doohan's claims were doubted by a spokesman for the NATO-led peace keeping force, which includes 42,000 soldiers on the ground. The military spokesman in Pristina, the Kosovar capital, said the force had no records of any attacks on Catholics.

He conceded, however, that while crime victims’ ethnicity is recorded, their religion is not.

The Holy See's representative in Serbia, Archbishop Santos Abril, was among the first westerners to enter Kosovo after NATO troops took control.

The nuncio, who also reports to the Vatican on conditions in Kosovo, told the Register in a telephone interview, “I have not heard of any problems between Catholics and Muslims.” He added: “But I do not want to make any further declarations.”

In July, the nuncio told the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire that in addition to meeting the Catholic community he had also had meetings with Muslim and Orthodox leaders. He told Avvenire: “We told them we are here to help. We, the Catholic Church, want to be a link, a point of meeting, a bridge of brotherhood for all in order to really help these people. We want to tell them that reciprocal collaboration will guarantee security for all.”

Another Possibility

An alternative scenario was outlined to the Register by Augustine Paloko, an Albanian Catholic journalist for Kosovo's main daily newspaper, Kohaditore. Poloko said he doubted that Muslims were now turning on Catholics. “All Albanians, both Catholic and Muslim, suffered ethnic persecution from the Serbs. This has been an ethnic problem.

“Although,” he added, “there may be some problems in some of the Croatian villages because the Croatians are speaking a similar language to the Serbs, or maybe some of them even cooperated with the Serbs. There have been some Bosnian Muslims who have experienced a similar problem because they were speaking Serbo-Croat.”

Poloko claimed “there is no religious division in Kosovo.” He also pointed to a recent report on religious freedom by the U.S. State Department that underlined the ethnic — not religious — nature of problems in the region.

But this is disputed by The Little Way's Doohan, who said that the nuns who were warned not to wear their crucifixes were Albanian sisters, not Croats.

Aid To The Church In Need, founded during the Cold War to assist Churches behind the iron curtain, also maintains that Kosovo's Catholics have nothing to fear from their Muslim neighbors. But their Eastern European coordinator disagrees.

“Regrettably, I have to join with [those] bishops who have [privately] expressed a pessimistic attitude,” said Maria Konietzny. She told the Register of bishops and priests in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia, who have expressed to her their fears for the long-term viability of the faith in Kosovo.

She said concerns have been heightened by the fact that Hashim Thaci, a leader in the political wing of the Kosovo Liberation Army, is expected by many to become the state's next prime minister.

A radical Muslim, Thaci has made no secret of his desire to found an Islamic state in Kosovo, said Konietzny. The fact that half of the country's 60,000 Catholics have already fled leaves those who remain especially vulnerable.

During the occupation by the Serbian militia last spring, an estimated 300 Catholics were killed, especially in the villages of Djakovica, Pec and Meje. While only two out of the country's 40 priests were forced to leave during the occupation, most Church properties sustained heavy damages.

Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.