Accessibility links

Breaking News

Thousands Protest Sarajevo Mass Honoring Pro-Nazi WWII Collaborators

The protesters in Sarajevo, who rallied despite a ban on public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, sang songs linked to the anti-Nazi struggle.

Thousands of Bosnians have staged a protest against a public mass held in the capital, Sarajevo, to honor Croatia's pro-Nazi collaborators and civilians killed by communist partisans at the end of World War II.

The Catholic Churches of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, despite widespread condemnation, held the mass at the Sarajevo Cathedral on May 16.

Only 20 people were allowed to attend the mass because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Several hundred meters away from the cathedral, a crowd of several thousand protesters held a rally and blocked traffic.

The commemoration, usually held every May near the southern Austrian town of Bleiburg, was canceled this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bosnian and Croatian churches stepped in and organized the event under the auspices of the Croatian parliament, which in 2016 reintroduced state sponsorship of the commemoration after having revoked it in 2012 amid criticism that it was rehabilitating the Nazi-allied Ustasha regime.

Sarajevo Archbishop Vinko Puljic, who held the mass, earlier rejected the accusations and said that praying for the victims' souls did not mean approval of their acts.

"No one has the right to neglect the victims for whom we pray today," Puljic said during the mass. "We want to see a halt to double standards in respecting the victims of hatred and massacre."

The protesters in Sarajevo, who rallied despite a ban on public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, sang songs linked to the anti-Nazi struggle.

"Death to fascism, freedom to the people!" they chanted.

The mass and protest ended without any major incidents.

All three members of Bosnia's tripartite presidency along with most political parties and nongovernmental organizations as well as the Serbian Orthodox Church, Jewish leaders, and the U.S. and Israeli embassies had voiced their condemnation ahead of the event.

Eric Nelson, the U.S. Ambassador to Bosnia, told RFE/RL on May 15 that commemorations should "focus on remembrance, not revisionism."

"Especially this year, when we mark the 25th anniversary of the end of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is important for everyone to focus on two values of democracy -- reconciliation and interreligious dialogue," Nelson said.

'Retrograde Rhetoric'

The U.S. Embassy in Bosnia had called "on those organizing the Bleiburg commemoration in Bosnia and Herzegovina to refrain from historical revisionism and retrograde rhetoric."

The Israeli Embassy had said on Twitter that "the state of Israel stands firm and raises its voice against all attempts of revisionism."

The wartime Independent State of Croatia (NDH) controlled by the Nazi-backed Ustasha included Bosnia and parts of Serbia. The Ustasha persecuted and killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and anti-Nazi Croatians.

At the end of the war, the Ustasha, accompanied by civilians and Slovenian and Serbian collaborators, fled toward Austria, but British forces there refused their surrender.

Bosnia's Jewish leaders, Jakob Finci and Boris Kozemjakin, had sent a protest letter to Puljic, warning that the event "will commemorate... the butchers of our mothers, our fathers, our grandfathers and all our innocent fellow citizens killed by the fascist NDH."

Meanwhile, the Simon Wiesenthal Center had urged the Bosnian government to ban the memorial mass.

Honoring “the genocidal Ustasha state (NDH) is not only an insult to its victims and their families, but also to all those who opposed the crimes committed by the Ustasha,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement on May 14.

The archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Sarajevo, Hrizostom, recalled on May 14 that "more than 10,000 Sarajevo inhabitants, Serbs, Jews, Roma, and other people opposing the Ustasha movement were killed" during the war.

"You are holding a mass for those who committed those crimes," Hrizostom said in a letter to Puljic.

The number of people caught and executed by Communist leader Josip Broz Tito's partisans in the Bleiburg border region between Austria and Slovenia is being debated, but independent historians put it at tens of thousands.

With reporting by AFP and AP