From the Ashes, Bosnian Church Rebounds


Cardinal Vinko Puljic is the archbishop of Sarajevo, the largest Roman Catholic diocese in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Consecrated an archbishop in 1991, he was invested into the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II in November 1994. At 51, he is the youngest cardinal and the first from Bosnia. As archbishop of Sarajevo, he has ministered to a Catholic community that, like the rest of the population, has been devastated by war.

During the four-year-long Balkan conflict, Cardinal Puljic was outspoken in urging international action to preserve a multi-ethnic, multi-religious BosniaHerzegovina and in calling attention to the threatened extinction of the Catholic community in central Bosnia. Last month, Cardinal Puljic toured the United States to seek aid in rebuilding the Church in Bosnia and to strengthen international support for full implementation of the Dayton Accords. He was invited to the United States by Bishop Thomas Welsh of Allentown, Pa. and the Catholic Medical Foundation, which is spearheading the drive to build a much-needed Catholic hospital in Sarajevo. The Croatian Catholic Union of the U.S.A. and the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) helped to coordinate the visit.

The Register spoke to Cardinal Puljic at the headquarters of the Catholic Medical Foundation in Easton, Pa.

Register: It has been more than a yearnow since the cessation of hostilities in Bosnia and the implementation of the Dayton peace process. What are conditions like in Sarajevo today?

Puljic: Most importantly, the shooting has stopped. But the control that various ethnic groups established over specific territories in Bosnia [during the war] has been cemented in the months since. There have been no significant changes on the ground since the cease fire. [International and U.S.] military forces keep the peace and help maintain the status quo. We need their efforts, we expect them to do what they've agreed to—particularly, to ensure that the roads stay open, that there is free passage of people and supplies on Bosnia's roads.

As for the Archdiocese of Sarajevo's postwar situation, it's pretty grim. Our archdiocese, which once had more than 500,000 Catholics, now has less than half that number. Banja Luka, [another Bosnian diocese], which is now controlled by Serbs, once boasted 70–80,000 Catholics, but now has less than 10,000 left. They've all fled to Croatian-controlled Herzegovina, or to Croatia itself, or even farther afield, to Europe, the United States, and Australia. As with all such migrations, it's the future that's leaving—the young people. The elderly, who have nowhere else to go, remain.

The major part of the civil stipulation [of the Dayton Accords] is not yet implemented—and one that might help to stem the flight of Catholics from the area—has to do with the return of refugees to their homes. As you know, before the war, most areas in Bosnia had a mixed population of Muslims, Serbs and Croats. Now with particular ethnic groups controlling the various areas, it's difficult for Serbs in Croatian-controlled zones, for example, or Muslims in Serbian zones to go back to where they once lived. Only some dozens of such refugees have managed to go back to [United Nations-established] “safe zones” in their area, let alone reclaim their former homes. It's vital for the safe return of refugees to become a reality if there's to be lasting peace in Bosnia. The results of the war's “ethnic cleansing” campaigns cannot be allowed to become a permanent reality. We even have a sad, new phenomenon in Bosnia: “ethnic self-cleansing”—young Catholic families voluntarily moving out of territories controlled by Muslims into Croatian [or Catholic-] controlled zones.

And then there's the problem of the media. Bosnian press and television is almost entirely controlled by ethnic leaders. These local chiefs select news that supports their narrow claims and keep the ideology that fueled the war alive. Establishing freedom of the press is crucial to the future of peace in the region.

Is there any hopeful news at this stage?

On the positive side, our Church tries to light a candle in the darkness. In this sense, we encourage the faithful not to lose hope. How do we do that? Well, one of the means of keeping hope alive is through the establishment of Catholic schools. Even during the war, our diocese opened three new schools. Establishing or reestablishing Catholic institutions is the key to the future of the Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina. For example, in territories where there's even a slight possibility of the return of Catholic refugees, we are trying to place priests. Catholics will be more likely to return to areas where there's a priest. Through the efforts of Caritas and other aid agencies, we're trying to renovate homes in the former war zones. In this sense, the Church acts as a kind of “meditating” agency for potential donors. We know that what the people need are not handouts, but bricks.

Our archdiocese is also trying to launch a new program: a campaign to build a Catholic hospital in Sarajevo. In fact, this is part of my purpose in coming to the United States now, to raise funds for the new hospital. This, of course, is part of our tradition, isn't it—Catholic schools, Catholic medical facilities? During the communist period, the Church was forbidden to have such public institutions here. Now we have the chance to reclaim part of our essential mission as Catholics—the tradition of Catholic social activity, love made manifest by deeds.

But why a hospital in particular? What do you see a Catholic medical facility doing for the Church and people in Sarajevo that the current hospitals in the city aren't doing?

A number of things. On the psychological level, it would boost the morale of the non-Muslim minorities in Bosnia, which, under the current regime, find themselves facing a kind of second-class citizenship in a Muslim-dominated state. As with other Catholic institutions, a hospital would help Catholics resist the temptation to leave Bosnia. But a Catholic hospital would also serve to break the current Muslim hold on public institutions in the country. With eighty percent of the country's population now Muslim, all public institutions in Bosnia are controlled by Muslims. In a government-dominated state, it's vital, not only for Catholics, but for non-extremist Muslims, Orthodox, and Jews—all of Bosnia's minorities—to be able to turn to a free institution for help. Catholic humanitarian institutions enjoyed the trust of all Sarajevo's citizens before World War II, and they can again. For Catholics and other minorities, who already feel vulnerable, whose very survival often enough depends on humanitarian aid, we want to be to offer them a chance to be decently treated when they're sick.

Are you suggesting that non-Muslims are not always “decently treated” in Bosnia's Muslim-run hospitals?

Let me answer that with an example. Under the communist regime, if a woman had a problem in her pregnancy, the answer was always the same—abortion. In today's climate, Muslim religious leaders urge Muslim women to give birth. But non-Muslims, shall we say, are not always given the same advice. Catholic women don't know whether to trust the advice they're being given in government hospitals. The basic problem is that state policies are being felt even in medical institutions. Non-Muslims feel second-class there, too. They often don't feel they're getting the same level of care. We want to create a situation where pregnant women can get help without resorting to abortion, where all people—Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox, Jews—can receive the same care regardless of ethnic or religious background.

In terms of arousing interest in your hospital project, how has your visit to the U.S. gone so far?

This is the third time I've visited here. This time it's at the invitation of the Catholic Medical Foundation, based in Easton, Pennsylvania. I' really here to motivate donors to help this foundation to help us open what we are already calling St. Vincent de Paul Hospital, Sarajevo. We've been warmly received wherever we've gone and some promises have already been made. I've had good visits with Cardinal [James] Hickey [of Washington, D.C.], Cardinal [John] O'Connor [of New York], Archbishop [Theodore] McCarrick [of Newark] and Cardinal [Anthony] Bevilacqua [of Philadelphia]. I also plan to visit with Church leaders in Chicago, Indiana, Cleveland and St. Louis. With Archbishop Renato Martino, [Vatican ambassador to the U.N.], I also met with the new U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Anan, who was very open to listening about the difficulties of the Catholic community in post-Dayton Bosnia. We also spent some time visiting U.S. hospitals, many of which are already giving equipment to Catholic Medical Foundation for St. Vincent's.

Given what you've said about life in Muslim-dominated Sarajevo, how are relations between the Church and the Bosnian government these days? Does your personal reputation for courage during the siege of Sarajevo translate into added respect for the Church's views?

During the war, the political leaders [in Bosnia] expressed public appreciation for my work. It was useful for them to do so then. Now, when it's no longer useful, they despise what I do.

What do you mean?

During the siege, I raised my voice against violence, against the concentration camps. My outcry is not so welcome now when I raise my voice against discriminatory attitudes towards Catholics in Bosnia. Who's changed? I haven't. The same Catholic principles that inspired my outcry during the war about the treatment of Muslims and Croats at the hand of Serbs inspires my outcry now about the treatment of Catholics. But our political leaders do not like criticism of any kind. As for me, it's my work as the archbishop of Sarajevo to protect any citizen, of whatever nationality, whose fundamental dignity or rights might be in jeopardy.

During the war I was in frequent touch with the [Bosnian] political leadership. My door remains open to them. However, now when I submit some requests to the government concerning our diocese's pastoral needs, what I get is delays—“we will see what we can do.” Let me give you an example: For three years now I've been asking for the return of a building in Travnik in order to reopen a Catholic high school there. The building was confiscated from the Church by the communists after World War II. We want it back, we have a use for it. But the government won't return it to the Church. That's just one example.

In light of all this, “whither Bosnia”? Is there any possibility to save it as a multi-ethnic reality?

Well, I' not a prophet. My usual answer to that question is that our future depends on the good will of the local politicians and the international community.

Please explain.

It's a tense situation now at the local level. That's because the various ethnic leaders have their little dreams—each one wants Bosnia for himself. Well, part of the difficulty is that the big brothers—the great powers—have their dreams, too. And let me be slightly cynical for a moment: In light of those “big dreams,” we in Bosnia are political “small change.”

But let me say something more hopeful: Give me the media and I will stop hatred and war in Bosnia. The media played a sinister role in the war—not only locally, but internationally in its support for an embargo that effectively kept Bosnians from having the means to defend themselves. But a free media is the very first means to build up peace. The day that each ethnic group recognizes itself in a media that serves everyone will be the day that there's a chance for peace in Bosnia.

What do you make of the recent highly publicized protests in Belgrade over election irregularities? Some Western observers seem to imagine that this may be the harbinger of political reform in Serbia. How does all this play in Bosnia?

Of course, I look at events from a Bosnian perspective. To us, what's happening in Belgrade does not seem such a big change. Both Milosevic and the opposition leaders want the same thing: that is, the “great Serbian” dream. There's no good news here for Bosnians. There's an old saying: “When you cut an apple in two, it's still the same apple.”

In the post-Vietnam era in this country American youth experienced a profound moral and spiritual disorientation. What's happening to Bosnian youth in the wake of this war?

Sadly, there are enormous negative consequences as a result of the war for all people, including the young. We're finding that people are particularly vulnerable to serious stress-related diseases, like cancer. I can't prove a scientific connection between war-related stress and a rise in postwar cancer rates, but it's a public perception that there's a link between the two. There's been a large increase in the number of suicides of young people from all ethnic communities. The civil authorities don't want to face the problem; they try to pretend it's not there. There are psychic wounds: A rise in cases of mental illness, instances of eccentric behavior. The simple people did not want this war; they were swallowed up by it. And there's the problem of drug-trafficking. A lot of people are involved in importing drugs into the country. There are big profits to be made. And there's a whole population of unhappy, frustrated young people to prey upon. On top of all that, there's the difficulty young people experience being part of ethnic minorities, particularly when it comes to job discrimination. In today's Bosnia, the ethnic majority gets jobs, the minorities wait. For example, a student came to me recently, a Croatian, who'd finished his studies at the University of Sarajevo. Of all his classmates, he alone was without work in his field. “Should I just leave?” he asked me.

For many Catholic families, there are so many obstacles in the way of reestablishing a normal life in Bosnia. For example, Catholics wanting to return to their old prewar apartments in Sarajevo often find that, in the meantime, the government's has given them to soldiers and their families. They can never hope to reclaim them.

What can the Church tell people in such a situation? What do you tell them?

Our people have to see the situation in its historical context. We've just been through a long period of communist rule. During that time, the Church [in the old Yugoslavia] had the “freedom of cult”— the freedom to worship—but religion was fundamentally a private affair. Now the Church has a chance to engage in social activity informed by faith, and Catholics have real opportunities to act in society as believing persons. One of those major tasks has to do with educating people for democracy, and educating our faithful to respect those of other faiths. This, after all, is a special land where East and West meet. The Church here has a special duty, a special mission to be a bridge between East and West. That's our challenge. And this is why we struggle to remain where we are. However, given our status as a minority, we can't perform this great work, or found all the institutions needed to serve it by ourselves. In this, we must depend on the help and fraternal loyalty of Catholics from the outside.

Speaking of outside help, diocesan leaders in Sarajevo complained in October 1995 about the relative lack of help orcollaboration they received from some international Catholic relief agencies during the war.

First of all, we would certainly like to thank the various Catholic charities for help during the war. Without it we couldn't have survived as a community. Now in the post-war period we face a different challenge— not survival, but economic renewal and reconstruction. Now we need to help people work again so that they can feed their own families.

About the problems of the recent past, I would simply say that we know that Caritas, for example, brought in material aid and we—the diocese, that is—were able to control the distribution. Other Catholic aid agencies, however, failed to collaborate with us, and, therefore, we don't know where the help they sent ended up. There was the story of the retired police officer from the U.S. who tried to help us during the war. He brought in tons of goods for Sarajevo's children, but because he didn't coordinate with us in any way, we still don't know where the supplies went.

How did this happen? Why weren't Catholic contributions channeled through the Church?

Muslim countries generously aided their fellow [Bosnian] Muslims all during the war. But they gave nothing to Catholics as such. The aid they provided was an expression of their religious solidarity. And since the Muslims were portrayed as the victims in this war, many Catholic organizations virtually competed with each other to help Muslims, all the while ignoring the needs of their own coreligionists. Some of this lack of cooperation with the local Church may have been due to the particular political “take” the parent organization had on the war, or out of a desire to gain influence with the Muslim authorities. But it made a very bad impression on our people—Catholics ignoring Catholics—and it added to the particular morale problems our community faced during the war. “These westerners,” people said, “seem to think that we [Catholics] are something to be ashamed of.” There were Catholic priests who stayed for months in Muslim houses carrying water for elderly Muslims who didn't so much as ask if there might be elderly Catholics who needed help. Ironically, the Church channeled the aid it received not merely to its own, but to the needy of all ethnic groups. This is as it should be: it's Catholic universality in action.

Of course, we're grateful to the Holy Father who told us over and over again: “You are not alone. Hope for an end to your suffering.” We're also deeply grateful to certain Catholic leaders who saw our suffering firsthand, and shared it: the associates of the Catholic Medical Foundation, Archbishop McCarrick, and others.

It looks as though Pope John Paul II will finally fulfill his long-expressed desire to visit Sarajevo this spring. What can you tell us about the plans for the big event?

Of course, we look forward to the Pope's visit. We accept him as our leader who comes to strengthen us in the true faith. We also gladly receive him as the consoler of a Catholic community in danger of dying out. And we realize that he comes as the messenger of peace for the whole region: through his presence, his speeches and his meetings with the various leaders, he will contribute to the building of peace in Bosnia. Finally, we expect his visit will stir up the international community to continue to help us.

Cardinal Puljic, you were an inspiration to many during the war. What lasting spiritual lessons have you drawn from that harrowing experience?

First of all, I learned to rely more on God. If I may say so, I believe the international political community should learn this same lesson—less confidence in its own plans and projects and more reliance on God's love and compassion for men and women. The war was a life-school which taught me much more than any kind of formal education ever could have. When I now think about certain very difficult moments during the war, what I remember now most vividly is not the suffering, but that God was with us. That remembrance will, I believe, stay with me for the rest of my life. Even in my dreams I believe that I will relive and recall the events I have passed through in the war.

Gabriel Meyer

For more information about Cardinal Puljic's hospital project, contact: Catholic Medical Foundation, 3555 Santee Mill Road, Bethlehem, PA 18017.