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Balkans: The Former Yugoslavia And The Pope

It was only natural that the first Slavic pope attracted particular attention in a country whose name translates as "Land of the South Slavs." He was warmly greeted by Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Slovenes, and Albanians on his visits to the region, but he never fully overcame deeply rooted mistrust by the Orthodox toward him as head of the Roman Catholic Church.

News of the death of Pope John Paul II on 2 April brought a stream of condolences and laudatory messages the following day from across former Yugoslavia. Croatian President Stipe Mesic said in Zagreb that the pope was "a proven friend of Croatia and the Croatian people, and an advocate of our right to freedom and independence and our integration with the European family of peoples," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. "We will cherish forever his visits to Croatia. The messages he left during those visits as a religious leader and statesman have been and will remain a permanent landmark on our path of development," Mesic added.

Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said that the pope was not only the head of the Roman Catholic Church but also "the leading moral authority in today's world."
Serbia and Montenegro is one of the few countries that Pope John Paul II was unable to visit during his reign, reportedly due to the opposition of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The pope visited Croatia in 1994, 1998, and 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 5, and 9 June 2003). He stressed the same points as he did on his trips to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, and Albania -- namely, the need for forgiveness, reconciliation, spiritual renewal, the protection of life, and promotion of peace. About 87 percent of Croatia's 4.5 million people are at least nominally Roman Catholic, while about 1.3 percent are of Islamic heritage.

The head of the Islamic Community in eastern Croatia's Osijek-Baranja County, Imam Enes Poljic, said on 3 April that "the world has lost its greatest moral authority, the man who worked with great sincerity and dedication to building ties between all religions and religious communities. The Muslims in Osijek had prayed that his suffering be eased and we know that all of us are walking the same path toward the same end."

Mark Sopi, who is the Roman Catholic bishop of Kosova, said in Prishtina on 3 April that Pope John Paul II had shown great interest in solving Kosova's problems and urged dialogue. Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova said that "the news on the death of the holy father, a great pope who dedicated his life to peace, freedom, and mutual understanding, has deeply saddened me." The president also called the pope "a great friend, a father who prayed much for Kosova. We should pay credit to him for the freedom, independence, and democracy of Kosova," he added.

Most Kosovar Albanians are Muslims, but there is an influential Roman Catholic minority. Relations between those two religious groups are generally good, partly because most Muslim Kosovar Albanians are aware that their own ancestors were most likely Roman Catholic before converting to Islam under Ottoman rule.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, who is the first cardinal in Bosnia's history, said in Sarajevo on 3 April that John Paul served as a bridge between religious faiths. "We can rightfully say that he was a great pope, certainly the man of the century and the man who led the church from one millennium into another," he added.

Borislav Paravac, who is the Serbian member of the Bosnian Presidency and its current chairman, called the pope a true friend of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the entire world.

Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, the head of Bosnia's Islamic Community, said that "Pope John Paul II's departure from this world leaves a huge void. It will be difficult to find such a moral figure." The Sarajevo daily "Oslobodjenje" noted that on his 1997 visit to Bosnia the pope said that "one should be able to ask forgiveness and to forgive."

The pope also visited Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2003, when Serbian Orthodox officials gave him a chilly reception in the Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 June 2003). Bosnia's 4 million people are estimated to be about 40 percent Muslim, 31 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 15 percent Roman Catholic.

In Belgrade, Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle sent a message on 3 April in his name and that of the church to the Roman Catholic clergy and believers in which he wrote that he shares their grief and hopes that the soul of the pope may rest in peace. Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica also extended their condolences.

Serbian Dilemma

Serbia and Montenegro is one of the few countries that Pope John Paul II was unable to visit during his reign, reportedly due to the opposition of the Serbian Orthodox Church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 June 2003). About 65 percent of the country's 10.8 million people are Orthodox, while only 4 percent are Roman Catholic, mainly in Vojvodina and Montenegro's Kotor Bay region.

The problem in the pope's relations with the Serbian Orthodox Church and many of former Yugoslavia's Orthodox believers stems from the fact that the area is at a crossroads where Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Islam come together. Interconfessional relations have ebbed and flowed over time but in recent years have seen little of the interfaith dialogue that has characterized relations between religious groups in many Western countries.

Most important, perhaps, is that nationalists of all hues manipulated and exploited religious passions and senses of grievance for their own ends during the wars of the 1990s. Those conflicts -- for which most observers hold former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his supporters chiefly responsible -- were about land, money, and power. Unscrupulous leaders nonetheless had little difficulty in masking their aims by appealing to simple people for their support on religious grounds, particularly with stories about the real or imagined destruction of religious buildings (see "RFE/RL South Slavic Report," 15 and 22 July, 7 and 21 October, and 11 November 2004). Serbian propaganda, moreover, stressed that the breakup of Yugoslavia was part of a plot engineered by Germany, Austria -- and the Vatican.

Pope John Paul II distanced himself from extremist positions, as did many other religious leaders in the region, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Franjo Kuharic of Croatia, who died in 2002. Kuharic even strained his relations with President Franjo Tudjman by firmly opposing the 1993-94 Croatian-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, which Tudjman privately backed as a prelude to partitioning that neighboring country. In recent years, in the Bosnian town of Bugojno, the local Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim clerics have taken the lead in brining their peoples together. When the Serbian Orthodox priest leaves a community meeting early, he gives his proxy vote to the Muslim imam to cast for him, not to one of the Serbian lay leaders.

Mutual Mistrust

But the wars have generally left a climate of mutual mistrust among the religious communities, none of which is far removed from nationalist political groups (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 24 September 2004). This situation also affected Pope John Paul's relations with the Orthodox and seems to be the chief reason why the visit to Serbia and Montenegro he hoped for never materialized.

His visit to the Republika Srpska in 2003 highlighted the problem. He paid a brief visit to Banja Luka on 22 June to beatify Ivan Merz, Bosnia's first beatified layman. Speaking to a crowd of over 50,000, the pope called for reconciliation, adding that "from this city, marked in the course of history by so much suffering and bloodshed, I ask almighty God to have mercy on the sins committed against humanity, human dignity, and freedom, also by the children of the [Roman] Catholic Church, and to foster in all the desire for mutual forgiveness. Only in a climate of true reconciliation will the memory of so many innocent victims and their sacrifice not be in vain." His remarks alluded primarily to killings of Orthodox Serbs by pro-Axis Croats during World War II as well as to the ethnic cleansing of Croats and Muslims by Serbs during the 1992-95 conflict.

But even though police quickly took down posters reading "Pope go home," "Vatican experts agreed that this was one of the coolest welcomes" the pope received anywhere, Deutsche Welle noted. No officials of the Serbian Orthodox Church -- except Bishop Jefrem of Banja Luka -- welcomed him, although he had sent a message to Patriarch Pavle.

From the onset of his papacy in 1978, the Polish-born pontiff stressed the reconciliation of eastern and western Christians as "two lungs breathing in the same body." In 1979, one of his first foreign trips as pope took him to Istanbul to meet Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I. But aside from the Romanian Orthodox Church, many of the Orthodox regarded him with suspicion and gave him a chilly welcome on his visits to Greece and Ukraine.