Monday, March 23, 2009

Bosnian Bishop calls his flock home

Displaced by war; Population dropped by half after conflict

Charles Lewis, National Post

Published: Monday, March 23, 2009

When Bishop Franjo Komarica looks out at his congregation in the northwestern region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, he feels a sense of dread.

In Banja Luka, the largest city in the region, only about 200 of the Roman Catholic faithful show up for Sunday morning Mass at the cathedral, instead of the 800 that used to be the norm before a three-year war that ended in 1996.

It was a war of brutal ethnic cleansing that saw hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the land.

Now, when he looks on his flock he sees they are mainly the elderly.

"It's a seniors' home," said Bishop Komarica, who was in Toronto last week to speak about the troubles in his country and to seek out expats who might want to return to their place of birth.

But how do you lure people back to a land scarred by war and in the midst of an economic crisis?

"Some joke that I am a bishop with the largest diocese in the world," he said through an interpreter.

"I have quite a number of my faithful worshippers here [in Toronto], more than I now have in Banja Luka."

His mission to repopulate his diocese is absolutely serious, if not a tremendous long shot. It is the only way, he said, to prevent the Catholic population in his region, which dates back to before the fifth century, from vanishing forever.

"A terrible tragedy has occurred in my homeland," he said. "The consequences of the tragedy are immense and there appears to be a lack of interest to correct what needs to be corrected."

During an hour-long interview, Bishop Komarica's emotions ranged from despondency to anger, as he pounded his fists and raised his voice from the frustration of it all.

During the terror of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, known as the Bosnian War, 80,000 Catholics were put in camps, expelled or fled in terror. Eight hundred Catholics were killed, including seven priests and one nun. Today there are 37,000 Catholics remaining.

In Banja Luka, there were only 3,000 out of 30,000 at the end of the war.

The tragedy, of course, did not extend just to Catholics. During the three-year war, two million people -- Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim -- were displaced in the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina and almost 250,000 people were killed.

In 1994, the Bishop, who was born in Banja Luka, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort to keep peace between the three main ethnic groups in his region. Two years later, Serb authorities put him under house arrest for 230 days and he has received numerous death threats.

Once the Dayton Peace Accord was signed, in 1996, he believed the European Union and others in the international community would help those displaced Catholics return. Since then, only 2% have made their way back.

He claims there has been money from the European Union and other resources for ethnic Serbs (Orthodox) and Bosniaks (Muslims) to return, but no money for Catholics, most of whom are ethnic Croatians. He said he has yet to get a satisfactory answer and can only assume those in power believe the region would be better off with little or no Catholic presence.

That is why he would like to see Catholics return and build enough of a critical mass that others might consider doing the same.

But trying to find candidates to return, even with assistance, will be an uphill battle. He admits it is a project for the brave.

For one, the homes of refugees have been occupied by members of the other two main ethnic groups. Then there is the issue of physical safety, which cannot be assured.

When asked whether a returning family would be physically safe, Bishop Komarica said there were no absolute guarantees.

"I cannot say that there would be no physical harm but I think it would be safe. Generally speaking the police are making an effort to prevent excessive violence."

But even without those impediments, it would be a tough sell to anyone who has built up a new life elsewhere.

The International Relations & Security Network (ISN), based in Zurich, said the country is based on "ethnic-based nationalist rhetoric" that has little regard for the collapsing economy. Unemployment is estimated to be as high as 45% in some regions. The ISN quoted a survey taken earlier this month said half the population of the country would emigrate if there was the means.

"The aim is to help those who want to come back," Bishop Komarica said.

"We believe there are tens of thousands who would come back if they had the assistance. If the ice is broken with those who want to return, those who fear to return might reconsider. I refuse to use the word hopeless."