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Religion and Society

Bosnia: Plenty of Hurdles on the Road to Reconciliation

Interview with H.E. Msgr. Pero Sudar, Auxiliary Bishop of Sarajevo, by Maria Laura Conte

What are your views on the current situation of Bosnia Herzegovina after the elections? What are the post-elections implications for your Country?

 

 

Last October’s elections results have, in my opinion, highlighted two basic situations.

 

The first is that the electors are dissatisfied with the performance of those who got their confidence four years ago. This is why this time they have generally opted for the Socialist Party. Despite having given confidence to the Socialist parties at both the State and the regional levels, electors have made the formation of an effective government difficult, not to say impossible. This is because of the political structure of our Country, torn apart by two opposing forces: one endeavouring to make Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) into a centralized State, and the other pushing towards absolute political autonomy for the Serb Republic. The Federation’s Socialist Party, mainly composed of Bosnian Muslims, has, in fact, a centralized State as its number-one priority. The Serb Republic’s Socialist Party, on the other hand, strives towards the total autonomy of that part of the Country.

 

 

The second situation following the elections is that our Country is held hostage by the Dayton Agreement. Because of an amoral and profoundly unfair political solution, the B&H has been sinking lower and lower. Nevertheless, the political forces concerned, US in the lead, do not allow any serious discussions on a possible revision of the Agreement they have imposed. Obviously, there are vested interests making our Country into a victim.

 

 

To some analysts, the electoral results have highlighted an ethnic division still very marked in your Country. What do you think is the meaning of this division?

 

 

We can obviously not ascribe all our problems to Dayton, though the Agreement has provided a political and democratic scenario to the war crimes and the struggle of our politicians in the post-war period. The Country’s territorial division according to the ethnic principle has hindered, rather than helped, the economic recovery and a reconciliation among B&H’s inhabitants. The Serbian people are convinced that their basic interest is the preservation and the autonomy of the Serb Republic which actually constitutes only 49% of B&H; the Bosnian Muslims aim to suppress the two groups and to centralize the Country; the Croatians, on the other hand, have been evicted from their territory, assigned to the Serbians by the Dayton Agreement, and politically absorbed and neutralized by the Federation’s Bosnian-Muslim policies. Because of the ethnic division, each faction is forced to vote its own representatives despite being thoroughly dissatisfied with their performance.

 

 

What is the experience of the Catholic minority in this situation?

 

 

Catholics suffer together with the other citizens because of the Country’s extreme economic and social situation, and especially for the lack of work, which not only makes life difficult but also destroys all hope for a better future.

 

Besides, these minority Catholics feel excluded from the political solutions the Country has embarked upon, including Dayton, and for this reason they tend to leave the Country. If this trend continues, within just a few years there will be no Catholics left in Bosnia Herzegovina; but this seems to be no problem for the powerful who decide our destinies – on the contrary!

 

 

Do you feel that Catholics are discriminated against, in Sarajevo and generally in your Country?

 

 

When a State or a political force decides to be intolerant against some of its citizens there are a thousand ways of making this felt, even in more democratic Countries than our own. Here in Bosnia Herzegovina the armed war has turned into a policies war but the target is the same: total territorial control, achieved by expelling “the others”. This is a very subtle bias but one felt in all spheres of life: in the workplace, in the atmosphere at school, in sport stadiums, in the streets. During the war, the Serbians drove away nearly all the non-Serbians. In the last fifteen years of what I define “policies war” Serbian leaders have done everything in their power to prevent non–Serbian refugees from returning. In the Federation, where Muslim Bosnians and Croatians clashed during the war, the current absolute Muslim majority lets Catholics understand, in different ways, that they are not accepted or considered equal to the other citizens.

 

 

Can you outline some example of discrimination?

 

 

Discrimination is, first of all, politically motivated. I am sure that the majority of Muslims in our Country have nothing against Catholics as Catholics. It is also true, however, that this region is influenced and intimidated by the intolerant, so-called “new” Islam. Radical groups do exist but they are not yet so strong as to create the conditions for an open opposition to the other religions. Discrimination against Catholics has another, subtle nature. In our Country, national identity coincides almost 100% with religious belonging. Hence, anti-Croatian intolerance actually involves the Catholics, as the Croatians, when believers, are Catholics. In this sense the affirmation of Muslim Bosnians from Central Bosnia that they had nothing against Catholics but wanted the Croatians to leave sounded absurd as well as cynical. The most difficult discrimination to face for the Croatian Catholics is the current mentality, confirmed by the Dayton Agreement, whereby in Bosnia Herzegovina the only people that count politically are Serbians and Muslim Bosnians. In fact, as I have already said, the Serbians have their Serb Republic and the Muslim Bosnians have their Federation. This is an actual discrimination, not a purely theoretical one. For many years the Croatians have been trying to have a public television channel in Croatian, something the Muslim Bosnian politicians have always opposed as potentially clashing against their vital interests! In the practice of the local administration Catholics feel treated as second-class citizens.

 

 

Recently, a Catholic lady working in an Italian bank in Sarajevo told me she can no longer stand her colleagues’ intolerance. Two days ago a renowned actor who had been living in Sarajevo from childhood publicly declared that in this city he had been feeling more uncomfortable every day. There are really many such examples. I never tire of repeating that the unfair political solution imposed by the international community fosters all sorts of injustices and discriminations against our fellow-countrymen. Croatian Catholics, the smallest and weakest minority, feel this more acutely and are forced to leave their Country.

 

 

Croatia and Serbia aspire to enter the European Union. What do you think of this step in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

 

 

The European Union could help us put up with our difficulties, overcome the fear of new ethnic clashes as well as that of a violent division in our Country. But we must be aware of the fact that to become members of the European Union would not solve the fundamental problems. Our present set-up being what it is, we could hardly fulfil the minimum membership requirements. Just think we still have no Constitution. The State functions according to the Dayton Agreement, of which we still have no official translations into the languages of the peoples living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The official version is in English!

 

 

What would be the implications of an entering the EU for the Catholics?

 

 

Entry into Europe would help both the Catholics and the rest of the Country’s citizens. All we expect is to become equal before the law just as the other citizens. The Catholic Church is favourable to the entry of Bosnia and Herzegovina into the EU. We believe that a secular State can guarantee adequate religious freedom even in Countries where different Churches and religious communities cohabit. We certainly do not ignore the fact that a hostile brand of secularism and liberalism would be particularly against the Catholic Church: we have already experienced this at our own expenses. Yet, the human values and virtues that are also Christian cannot and must not be imposed but proposed.

 

 

In these days we get news of massive and violent persecutions striking Catholic minorities worldwide (Iraq, Pakistan, India, etc.). How do you perceive these persecutions?

 

 

We are aggravated and have feelings of profound human solidarity towards those who are persecuted. The most absurd intolerance and violence are those of a religious nature, for they not only strike human dignity: they deny God Himself. It is really tragic that a religion, in this case Islam, should be taken as a pretext for the persecution of the innocent and defenceless. To show more concern about defending those who live in extreme danger ought to be a civil and moral imperative for Western governments – also because extremists and their terrorist acts seek justification in the application of Western policies in those areas.

 

 

Do you think there’s a price to pay for the ethnic-religious minorities even within a democratic Country?

 

 

In a truly democratic Country minorities ought not to pay any price at all. In fact, they should be able to use the so-called positive discrimination. Democratic Countries, unfortunately, are too few or weak to have the energy to reverse the trend proposing domination over others as an ideal to strive for. We need a new, evangelic, logics.

 

All the citizens of B&H need a State able to guarantee their human rights, national identity and equal religious freedom. Catholics do not ask and cannot ask for anything more and, obviously, are not prepared to accept anything less. To be able to guarantee these conditions and aspire to really become an EU member, the B&H needs to be reorganized in such a way as to amend any structural injustice. Our politicians, unfortunately, are not ready to take this important step by themselves. We would need the help of the international community. This, in fact, ought to be a moral obligation for the maker of a solution that has proved inadequate to guarantee peace and a democratic process.

 

 

Do you still have to reckon with the wounds of the Communist period or have these wounds already healed?

 

 

There is a recent case in point. Immediately after WWII, the Communist regime nationalized nearly all of the Church’s property except church buildings, some parish centres and the Episcopal sees. In most of Sarajevo’s Episcopal see they let in some families who lived there for years. In time, these families left after finding better accommodation, except one, who stayed until the 1990’s despite being offered a flat of the same value. Before the last war, they too, like other families, fled from Sarajevo, thus abandoning the flat, which was then returned to the Archdiocese. During the reconstruction of this building, which had been devastated by the war, we found spy equipment under the floor. The war being over, that family demanded to go back to live in our house, took the case to Court and, after a lengthy trial, were successful. The sentence considered neither their criminal espionage action not the laws in force supporting the Archdiocese. When the case became also a political one, the authorities of the city of Sarajevo asked the Court to postpone the execution of the sentence. This is an answer to those who say that the Church does not respect the law, or that Catholics are privileged!

 

 

What can your experience as Bosnian Catholics teach to the rest of the world’s Catholics? What is your main witness?

 

 

I don’t know whether our experience can teach anything. Perhaps it can teach the duty of those who believe in God not to yield before difficulties and to promote certain values even when they cost a lot. The Catholic Church’s witness in B&H consists of its openness to ecumenism and dialogue not only in words but also by actions. Without ignoring the dangers, the Catholic Church has been defending the concept of peaceful cohabitation among different peoples, as well as the collaboration among Churches and religious communities in B&H. We are convinced that this is our specific vocation. We are grateful to all those who have encouraged and helped us to put it into practice.

 

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