17 July 2003, Volume 5, Number 21
THE CHURCH'S ROLE IN CROATIA AND SERBIA.
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).
Drago Pilsel: I probably should not talk about myself here, but my case is a good example of that narrow-mindedness of the church. I have systematically criticized the way the Catholic Church formally tolerated, ignored, and in a certain way even encouraged the crimes committed after Operation Storm [in August 1995], when it was obvious that Serbian civilians were being killed. Meanwhile, Zivko Kustic published a commentary in the [church newspaper] "Glas Koncila" under the title "Unprecedented Humanity in War."
I was furious when I read it, since that has nothing to do with either theology or Christianity. No warfare can be humane, even without war crimes, especially not the warfare after Operation Storm when hundreds of Serbs were brutally killed.
The church sometimes responds to my criticism but usually ignores me. Eventually they excommunicated me from the Association of Catholic Journalists. They found a way to justify that act of revenge, but it was simply the same old mechanism that has been in use for centuries to silence dissenting voices in the church. But instead of burning people at the stake as they used to do, they simply cast them out.
What happened is that I once told a meeting of the association that Ivan Mikelic, the editor in chief of "Glas Koncila," should not be elected chairman of the Association of Catholic Journalists because he is in charge of censorship in a Catholic publication, contrary to both the religious and secular norms of our profession.
Of course, after I refused to express regret for what I said -- I had nothing to regret since what I said was true -- they expelled me from the association. I cannot say which is worse: the situation in Serbia where the Serbian Orthodox Church reacts so angrily to every criticism, or in Croatia, where there is no real discussion at all.
RFE/RL: Mr. Pilsel has spoken about the way the Catholic Church deals with the crimes of Operation Storm. How does the Serbian Orthodox Church treat people like [Radovan] Karadzic and [Ratko] Mladic, indicted war criminals, who are still seen by many people in the Republika Srpska as war heroes?
Milan Vukomanovic: During the last decade of the last century and as well as in the first few years of this one, the Serbian Orthodox Church went through several phases.
The end of '80s and '90s were the period of ethnic mobilization, both in Serbia and Croatia. In Serbia the church joined most of institutions in supporting the policies of Slobodan Milosevic.
During the 1991-95 wars, the Serbian Orthodox Church played a double game. On the one hand, their official position was ecumenical, and through different declarations, joint statements, and calls for prayer the church advocated the process of reconciliation.
On the other hand, the bulk of the clergy and episcopate -- although mostly implicitly -- supported the nationalistic elements, first in Croatia and then in the Republika Srpska. In that context, people like Radovan Karadzic were not treated as war criminals, but rather heroes belonging to a glorious tradition.
From the student protests until the political changes in October 2000, the church took a critical stand on Milosevic's regime and supported the democratic alternative. After October, the church became much more involved in public life than before.
RFE/RL: But has the way the church treats Karadzic and Mladic changed?
Vukomanovic: There have been no radical changes.
Pilsel: When General Mirko Norac was indicted, the majority within the church, together with right-wing organizations, raised their voice against the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. Let me just remind you of the bishops' statement a few years ago, when they discredited themselves by calling the people from The Hague tribunal's prosecutor's office "third-rate clerks." That this was said in an official document of the Croatian Bishops' Conference is absolutely unacceptable.
When General Norac was sentenced, it was proven that he killed a woman with his own hands and participated in the killings of at least some 50 other people. The church fell silent.
The pope recently left Croatia, but before doing so he told us that the Croats and all the other citizens of Croatia should seriously and sincerely prepare to embrace all European nations and heed his previous calls to shun "the false idols of nation, race, and ideology."
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church in Croatia did not know about or did not want to carry out his wishes. Nationalism remains as a blinder....
Vukomanovic: One should not forget that a church is made up of its believers. There are many cases of small initiatives showing how to progress toward reconciliation.
RFE/RL: I agree with you that most cases of tolerance are those among religious people, but it also seems to me that the Balkan region is cursed with having ethnocentric clergies among the three main religions: Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim.
Pilsel: I don't really share your view about religious people being tolerant.... I would even say that we believers have a lot to learn from nonbelievers.... Many people prefer to be nonbelievers rather than believers in a community that obviously does not live up to its precepts.
Vukomanovic: I think that our model should be that multicultural and multiconfessional Europe whose heritage includes all three monotheist religions and which is profoundly aware that tragedies occurred every time tendencies opposed to diversity -- racial, ethnic, or religious -- appeared.
RFE/RL: Do you think our ethnocentric religious communities will eventually accept Europe as a model?
Pilsel: Sooner or later.
Vukomanovic: There is no other choice if our countries want to joint the EU.
Pilsel: During his recent visit to Croatia, the pope repeatedly said that he would like Croatia to become a member of the EU. Regardless of his reasons -- many feel that he wants no Catholic country left out of the EU -- the Holy See intends to lobby for Croatia....
Sooner or later, we will have to repay the Holy See by observing the principles that the pope proclaimed in Split in 1998: humanity, justice, and truth. We can no longer claim to enjoy a moratorium on morality and ethics. We must promote reconciliation, or we will cease to exist.