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South Slavic: July 10, 2003


10 July 2003, Volume 5, Number 20

THE CHURCH'S ROLE IN CROATIA AND SERBIA.

Part I.

A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg with Drago Pilsel, theologian and publicist from Croatia, and Milan Vukomanovic, assistant professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, teaching sociology of religion (see "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 18 and 25 January 2001, and 24 and 31 January 2002).

RFE/RL: Mr. Pilsel, is the Roman Catholic Church involved in politics in Croatia?

Drago Pilsel: Well, it depends on the context. If we are talking about the period after the fall of [President Franjo] Tudjman's regime [at the close of 1999 and start of 2000], then the involvement is much less than it was when he was consolidating his power a decade earlier.

If we are talking about the very recent past, then the answer depends on how we understand the nature of the church. As a theologian, I believe that the church rarely involves itself in politics. But some agnostics, atheists, or all those who do not really understand the nature of the church might interpret some of its demands as a form of meddling.

For example, some church institutions and bishops personally seek limits on work on Sundays. Some people might call that meddling in politics, but I think it is a legitimate attempt to defend Christian family values by establishing standards similar to those in Italy, where only restaurants and emergency services remain open on Sunday. In Croatia many people work on Sunday without being paid a bonus, which makes their situation similar to slavery.

RFE/RL: Don't you think it is primarily an economic issue?

Pilsel: Absolutely, but it is also a cultural and sociological issue.

RFE/RL: Mr. Vukomanovic, is the Serbian Orthodox Church involved in politics?

Milan Vukomanovic: I would rather say that now both the Serbian Orthodox Church and state are going through a new period in their relations. One can see this in the growing presence of the Serbian Orthodox Church and other religious communities in the media and education, for example.

But there is confusion in church-state relations as such, and the distinction between the two institutions is often blurred.

RFE/RL: Mr. Vukomanovic, don't you think that Serbian politicians are competing for the church's favor? None of them dares to utter a word of criticism of the church.

Vukomanovic: More than 85 percent of the citizens of Serbia are registered as Orthodox Christians. One must keep that fact in mind -- and the politicians certainly do.

I would like to point out that many journalists are indulgent towards the church, which reflects the ideological vacuum in a society in which people are searching for a new value system.

Pilsel: It is true that after the fall of socialism, Marx was replaced with Christ or the crucifix, and, as far as Croatia is concerned, many Bolsheviks, communists, and atheists -- all former members of the League of Communists -- simply joined the Croatian Democratic Community [HDZ] in pursuit of a new ideology.

Of course, they do not dare to criticize religion, or rather the clergy. They fear such criticism might hurt their popularity.

But several parties of the center, such as Ivo Banac and the Liberal Party, do criticize the clergy and defend the concept of a secular, civil society.

Those who fear criticizing the church and go along with it are the former communists, like Prime Minister Ivica Racan, for example. They simply have a guilty conscience or do not know what to do, so they treat the church as something very powerful. This is so despite the fact that sociological research shows that the church does not enjoy the strong popular support that some bishops and priests think it does. This is particularly true on issues such as birth control or abortion.

RFE/RL: Mr. Vukomanovic, is it primarily the former communists who cultivate the church the most in Serbia?

Vukomanovic: I would say that politicians in Serbia are very careful in dealing with the church. Critical views about the Serbian Orthodox Church come mostly from nongovernmental organizations.

For their part, many representatives of the church react strongly to any criticism, suggesting that the critics are tainted by "communist atheism." This attitude is, of course, completely counterproductive where promoting communication within society is concerned.

RFE/RL: Don't you think that the church refuses to engage in dialogue and speaks only through pronouncements?

Vukomanovic: My impression is that there isn't much of a dialogue. The church has new rights, which also means increased responsibilities, but it does not show the necessary flexibility to deal with its new role in education, for example. Again, the church treats critics as evildoers or recidivist communists.

Pilsel: The Roman Catholic Church in Croatia has often not behaved any better. There is a tendency toward haughtiness and ignoring the role of the secular, civil society. Church officials issue statements but generally shun dialogue.

Zagreb's Archbishop Josip Bozanic is the master of that game. He practically never answers delicate questions the way a man representing the church [in a democratic society] is expected to.

This is all the more astounding because he is vice president of the European Council of the Bishops' Conference, too. I doubt that he can treat European journalists' questions in the arrogant way that he behaves toward the Croatian media.

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