Bosnia: 'No Peace Without Reconciliation, No Reconciliation Without Forgiveness'

On Jan. 25, 1997, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Bosnian bishops' conference, newly established in the wake of the 1991–95 civil war in Bosnia that ended with the Dayton Peace Accords, published a pastoral letter on their Church's long and often painful history. An English translation was made available by Cardinal Vinko Puljic, archbishop of Sarajevo and head of Bosnia's four-man episcopate. The following excerpt focuses on the most recent calamities that befell the Bosnian Church and the prospects for the future.

… IN THE LATEST DESTRUCTIVE WAR we have suffered more losses than ever before in the estimation of numerous experts. We do hope that this war is coming to its end, but at the same time we are afraid that once again the serious danger of our total extermination is hanging over our heads like Damocles'sword. The Catholic Church is not yet able to assess all the consequences of aggression on Bosnia-Herzegovina that raged for four years. Two dioceses—Banja Luka and Trebinje Mrkan—have been nearly totally ravaged. In the diocese of Banja Luka, although there were no war activities in this territory, in the region now controlled by the Serbian armed forces, there were once some 80,000 Catholics, but now there are only about 5,000 of them still there. In only five remaining churches liturgical celebrations are taking place, while there were once 75 churches. Out of 42 ecclesiastical buildings (parish pastoral centers, monasteries and convents) only five are still being used. The others have been completely destroyed or usurped. The aggressors did not spare even the cemeteries and other signs of Catholic presence in this region. In the Diocese of TrebinjeMrkan, one parish was totally destroyed, one completely displaced, one made inaccessible and three were partially occupied. About 3,000 believers were driven out of this diocese. In the Diocese of Mostar-Duvno, nine parishes were partially or completely destroyed. About 10,000 believers were expelled. In the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna Sarajevo more than two-thirds of Catholics were driven out; out of a pre-war total of 528,000 only some 170,000 still residing in the archdiocese. Only a small number of parish churches, monasteries, cemetery chapels and parish houses were spared. With sorrow we must point out that the Catholic Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina was reduced to one third of its pre-war size in terms of the number of ecclesiastical buildings and faithful.

THESE VISIBLE WOUNDS, in spite of invaluable and irreparable material damages they caused, no matter how deep, cannot be compared to those invisible, spiritual ones. The great number of persons who have been cruelly killed and murdered or wounded and tormented has effected terrible and hardly comprehensible consequences in the souls of surviving relatives and friends, some of whom are still living in their homes while others live in exile. Spiritual and moral values have been driven by the winds of evil and violence from many people's souls. The struggle for mere survival, accompanied by constant uncertainty, has manifested some people's real self but also revealed others'oral fragility, shaken most people's beliefs and convictions. The military units which kept killing human beings in towns and villages, damaging or destroying public and private property, were followed by another more perilous force which was destroying human souls. On one side the law of constraint and greater force drew boundaries and constructed barricades, on the other, the law of propaganda and lies suspended all moral norms by deleting the difference between truth and lies, good and evil, love and hate, licit and illicit matters. In all spheres of social life and human conscience, after both were so devastated, crime, immorality, drugs, humiliations and frustrations are now blooming. An ordinary and simple person, pushed to the verge of his or her existential abyss and extremely-humiliated in his or her dignity, feels that he or she has become a tool in the hands of the powerful ones for the sake of the realization of their objectives in most indecent ways. In many places the bitter effects of hate, intolerance and revenge are corroding the very being of individual persons and of the whole nation. Psychological warfare against human-beings, their dignity and their fundamental values has already produced lethal wounds. An additional threat for the Croatian ethnic community and Catholic Church within Bosnia-Herzegovina are differing political concepts of our ethnic and ecclesiastical future which have already sparked resistance among Croatian Catholics in our country. It looks as if many sons and daughters of our ethnic community question their love for this country, and their willingness to remain in it or to return into it, after they and their loved ones have been submitted to different forms of torture and atrocities.

DURING THIS WAR THE COLLEGE of bishops of ecclesiastical province Vrhbosna-Sarajevo has been transformed by the Holy See into the Episcopal Conference of Bosnia-Herzegovina, because this new independent state has been recognized by the international political community. We, members of the episcopal conference of this country, encouraged by the strong and explicit support of the Holy Father, have been constantly raising our voices against atrocities and crimes, against force and violence, thus protecting the rights of innocent victims and defenseless persons. Unfortunately, our voices did not reach—which wasn't our fault—the minds and hearts of those who usurped the right of drawing the new maps according to their own interests or “entities,” by disregarding human persons and by neglecting their fundamental rights that are based in God's law. We did not come to agreement about any injustice, no matter who the perpetrators or victims were. We simply cannot approve such actions. Faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ and to the fundamental principles of his Gospel, we welcome peace endeavors but we condemn again all agreements which deny people's right to their homes, their native places and their homeland. We cannot close our eyes to hundreds of thousands of tear-stained exiles and refugees. We share their grief for their homes, their places of origin and their country from which they have been driven out without any sure hope for a safe return. Their tears are our tears and their pain is our pain, too. This war has brought great disaster to every decent citizen of Bosnia Herzegovina, especially to Croatian ethnic community and to the Catholic Church. Post-war peace building will request lots of endeavor by all sides and it will take years. Aware of this, we invite all people of good will to join with us in our efforts in our resolute resistance to all kinds of evil….

Human self-deception, which assumed that conflicts between individuals and peoples could be resolved by war and violence, has brought to ruins our country, our ethnic communities and our families. Oppressed by these ruins, in the name of God and of our fellow humans we beseech all our fellow citizens to work together in transforming our present cries of pain into future shouts of hope. We believe that it is God who made us to live next to one another in this region for centuries. If God in his providence has made this country a common homeland for all of us, can we stay and survive in it as citizens and believers without sincere efforts toward mutual understanding and cooperation?… This aggression and the tragic war it caused have shown to all of us where fear of others or those who are different can take individuals and ethnic communities. This is why we invite all our fellow citizens, but primarily our Catholic brothers and sisters who are included into our diocesan communities, to summon the energy and to paint firmly a just picture of peace into this unjust frame.

We know very well that there is no peace without reconciliation, and no reconciliation without mutual forgiveness. Therefore, in this time which—we hope and pray—is bringing the end of war and the beginning of peace we offer a hand of reconciliation as Catholic bishops and in the name of all those who through the sacrament of baptism have become members of Catholic Church. We ask forgiveness from all those who may have been exposed to any kind of injustice caused by sons and daughters of the Catholic Church….

In this pastoral letter we declare again that we remain ready for full ecumenical cooperation with the Serbian Orthodox Church in BosniaHerzegovina. We believe that in this region, where our two sister Churches have been co-existing and meeting for centuries, Christ's prayer for the unity of his Church puts us under a special obligation. In the same way, we stay open for dialogue and cooperation with the Muslim religious community in this country. Our common religious mission is to serve human-beings and no political program nor anybody's politics should prevent us from performing it….

FORALLOF US, SONSAND DAUGHTERS of this country, longing for peace and reconciliation, it is an inalienable right to make demands on the international community, after it has imposed on us this kind of “forced” peace, to help us transform it into a just and equitable peace. This means a peace that respects the dignity and rights of every person. The international community should enable this country to become free and open for all persons who want to live in it as their homeland. By doing so the international community will implement its proclaimed principles about the right of all exiles and refugees to return to their homes and to their respective places of origin. We would like to state once again that a person in his or her home and a people in its homeland can never be a stranger or a minority. Their fundamental right is to live their identity, while their fundamental duty is also to respect other people's identity. As a living part of Christ's Church we insist on our divine and human right to preach the Gospel as well as to live in the spirit of this Gospel and to perform our pastoral activity throughout the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as our Church has been doing in this region from the early centuries of Christianity. We cannot waive this right and, therefore, we cannot and will not accept any political solution which deprives us in any way of this right. With all our strength we wish to contribute towards the recognition of the same right for other religious communities….

…the bitter effects of hate, intolerance and revenge are corroding the very being of individual persons and of the whole nation.

AS BELIEVERS WE CAN RECONCILE with other fellow humans only after we reconcile with ourselves, but there is no reconciliation with oneself without reconciliation with God. This is why we urge our priests, religious men and women as well as the entire Catholic community in this tormented country—that nevertheless remains for us a kind of promised land—to engage in a thorough spiritual renewal. Only with God in our hearts we shall find the strength for the difficult mission which we have been entrusted with as living community of Christ's disciples in this country. Why shouldn't we with all humility admit that we are made of flesh and blood and thus dependent and fragile in our human forces…. Christ is the foundation of our hope. In him we can do even the things which seem impossible. Let us hope in him who is the Master of history and of human lives!…

Renewed in our faith and strengthened in our hope, we shall be able to forgive and to reconcile with our fellow citizens but also to initiate the indispensable material reconstruction. We know very well how enormous the destruction of our settlements and parish communities is. Thousands of family homes have been burned down or destroyed. A large number of churches, rectories, monasteries and convents suffered the same fate. Many refugees and displaced persons are rightly wondering: “Where shall we return?” The perpetrators of aggression and war atrocities have done this purposely in order to make any return impossible for as many people as possible. If we—by refusing to return—agree to their inhumane project, we shall make ourselves strangers and ramblers on the globe. We understand those exiles and refugees who vacillate and hesitate with regard to their return. But those who had the privilege of experiencing even for a moment the pride and joy of former exiles who came back to their destroyed and burnt family hearths know that this difficult task for all of us is possible.

Therefore, in the first place, we invite our brother priests and religious men and women to get wholeheartedly involved in the endeavors of returning to parishes, monasteries and convents from which they were expelled. We are living in a time which is looking for our renewed fidelity to God and our new love for the Church and human beings. The Catholic Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina today needs the missionaries of love. This Church for centuries provided a large number of men and women with spiritual vocations. Many of them worked and are still working zealously and with self-denial in the Lord's vineyard wherever Croatian people lived and is still living. We see our Church's needs for renewal and we wish it to take place as soon as possible. But such a renewal will not be possible without priests as well as religious men and women who are ready to go courageously to all parts of our country where our Church has been actively present for centuries….

BY TAKING PART IN THE GENERALrenewal of our country we are entitled to confirm our belief in life, in the future and in God's providence. Dear brothers and sisters, let us not forget that there are few places in this country where our presence could take its new roots without coming across some ancient foundations of a church, maybe forgotten since a long time ago. There are living roots of our thousand-year-old presence everywhere in this country. Therefore, Bosnia-Herzegovina has been given to us also as a promised land. It is only in this land that we are not aliens and sojourners, no matter how difficult and unpredictable our situation may be. Only in this country is our native soil….

Peace among people is possible if it is built with God. We know and we publicly confess that “Christ is our peace” (Eph 2, 14). Believing firmly in him, we, together with all people of good will want to build up peace and a better future for this country in which God has entrusted us with his gift of life. We know very well that we can build peace only by staying here or by returning here. This is our task because; only in this way we become the peace-makers and God's children. Our hope does not grow from the earth. It grows “from above”! In this common hope, let us all take courage and inspiration.