The scars of war are still visible in Sarajevo, Bosnia, as seen in this image from April 6. Twenty years ago this spring, the Bosnian war began with the siege of Sarajevo. Samir Yordanovic/Newscom

When Catholics in Bosnia-Herzegovina marked two decades since a bloody war tore their country apart, they could be thankful that peace now reigned under the watchful eyes of the international community. 

Yet for many, that peace has also brought its frustrations, and a deep sense of foreboding. 

“Real improvements will only come once fundamental changes have been made so our country’s three ethnic groups — Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims — can enjoy the same civic rights,” said Msgr. Ivo Tomasevic, secretary-general of the Sarajevo-based Bishops Conference. 

Peace efforts

Before the 1992-1995 war, Catholics made up 18 percent of the 4.3 million citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had formed part of communist-ruled Yugoslavia until its break-up in 1990-1991. 

Muslims and Orthodox Serbs had comprised 44 percent and 35 percent respectively. 

However, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s four Catholic dioceses lost more than half their inhabitants during the conflict, which cost over 100,000 lives and ended with the formation of a separate Serb Republic and Croat-Muslim Federation within a unitary state. 

Under a “General Framework Agreement for Peace,” drawn up in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s “constituent peoples” were promised justice and equal rights, while refugees and displaced people were allowed to return home and regain their properties. A NATO-led implementation force was tasked with ensuring the agreement’s military aspects, and a United Nations high representative charged with its civil implementation.

Lingering problems

The Catholic Church has long complained about how the agreement was implemented, insisting its guarantees for rights and freedoms have been flouted and ignored. In late May, the bishops’ conference president, Bishop Franjo Komarica of Banja Luka, accused politicians of a “well worked-out strategy” to drive Catholics from the country with effective connivance by the international community. 

The situation appears worst in the capital, Sarajevo, where 11,541 residents died from sniper fire and shelling during a four-year siege by Bosnian-Serb forces. 

Church leaders have complained of worsening conditions here under the Muslim-dominated city council, citing problems with obtaining permits for building and other initiatives. 

In January 2011, they accused local officials of “legalizing injustices” after Cardinal Vinko Puljic was ordered to hand over his episcopal residence to a former communist police agent, who claimed to be its rightful occupier. 

In 2010, they accused radical Muslims of stirring inter-faith tensions after councillors threatened to tear down a planned monument outside the Catholic cathedral to the late Pope John Paul II, who visited the city in 1997. 

An uncertain future

In a war anniversary statement, Cardinal Puljic said Sarajevo had“opened and closed” the European wars of the 20th century, and could still be a symbol of “peace, harmony and equality” between Christians, Muslims and Jews. 

However, he added that many inhabitants still suffered from“diseases and tumors resulting from bombs with depleted uranium.” 

Christians were asking whether they had “any future” in the city, which was the site of the 1914 assassination of the Austrian-Habsburg heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. 

Having been home to 35,000 registered Catholics in the early 1990s, Sarajevo now has just 11,000, fewer than 2 percent of its population, which is now overwhelmingly Muslim. 

The city’s Muslim mayor, Alija Behmen, insists complaints of “discrimination or unjust treatment” are “urgently investigated.” He also rejects claims his officials are “under pressure” to promote Islamic values by restricting alcohol and imposing dress codes on non-Muslims. 

“The city authorities treat all citizens equally and pay equal attention to all — the structure of the city council and administration is multinational and multi-religious,” Behmen told OSV. 

“Sarajevo has realized a successful cooperation with religious communities and churches for many years. It’s supported their activities financially in restoring and rebuilding religious structures, as well as in backing their educational, social and humanitarian events.” 

However, this is rejected in turn by the Sarajevo archdiocese vicar-general, Msgr. Matko Zovkic, who says the mayor is “ignoring realities.” 

In one recent case, Cardinal Puljic received permission, after a 13-year wait, for a church in Sarajevo’s Grbavica suburb, only to be “blackmailed” by an impossible tax demand equaling half the building costs, the priest told OSV. 

“In theory, everyone is treated equally, but in practice this isn’t the case,” Msgr. Zovkic said. “Muslim rulers should be creating space for non-Muslim minorities like us.” 

Searching for hope

There are some positive signals. 

In September, Sarajevo will be hosting a “great world meeting for peace,” during which representatives of Christian churches and other world religions will join in opposing violence and division. 

In early June, Catholic and Orthodox leaders from neighboring Croatia and Serbia published their first ever joint appeal for reconciliation to eliminate the consequences of war and pledge fresh support for the return of refugees and exercise of human and religious rights. 

Yet deep anxieties remain. 

Although Sarajevo itself is home to several powerful international institutions, these are tight-lipped when asked about the plight of Catholics. The spokesman for the European Union Force, Lieutenant-Commander Adrian Kirk, told OSV his military mission was not authorized to discuss complaints of civil and religious discrimination. 

Although the 1995 Dayton Agreement was intended to ensure peace and stability — and a more general “regional balance” in former Yugoslavia — Msgr. Tomasevic thinks it merely placed a block on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s integral development and made its institutions dysfunctional. 

Alterations to the agreement, giving Bosnian Muslims eight ministerial posts in the federation government, and Croats and Serbs five and three respectively, merely worsened the position of Christians, the priest says, by handing “full decision-making power” to Muslims, who now also appoint the country’s president and premier. 

Tomasevic dreams of the day when Bosnia-Herzegovina and its neighbors will be members of the European Union, enjoying democracy and prosperity. But that day still seems far off. 

“The Agreement and constitution weren’t designed by the people and parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina anyway, but in the United States,” Msgr. Tomasevic told OSV. 

“When NATO troops were occupying our country and removing power from its warlords, they should have taken much firmer steps to ensure all ethnic groups were treated equally and fairly. Although churches like ours can help by encouraging dialogue and tolerance, the real solutions must by found by the politicians. Until then, we can do little.” 

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.