Pope Francis’ visit to Sarajevo could be an opportunity to advance peace, equality, and justice for Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite a declining Catholic population whose refugees have still not returned home. “It is time for world leaders to make a just peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo told CNA April 7. “I do not expect a miracle from the Pope’s visit. But I expect that his cry would awake the conscience and responsibility of those who are in power who supposedly proclaim human rights … to solve the problem between the peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Cardinal Puljic said Bosnia and Herzegovina had been “put aside,” but the Pope’s Feb. 1 announcement of a visit once again put Sarajevo at the center of the world’s interest. “Because of that, the most influential countries and people of the world started again to think about Bosnia and Herzegovina and reconsider the situation here, trying to rebuild a just peace here.” Pope Francis’ June 6 visit to the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina comes 20 years after the 1995 Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian War. The war, which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, killed around 100,000 combatants and civilians and displaced a million more people. The fighting split largely along ethnic lines, among the predominantly Orthodox Serbs, the predominantly Catholic Croats, and the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks. Cardinal Puljic is a critic of the outcome of the internationally-brokered agreement that ended the war. “The beginning of injustice in Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the Dayton Agreement, which legalized ethnic cleansing. And the things that were implemented were the things favoring the most powerful side here in Bosnia,” he said. He said that that the state “cannot establish the rule of law, equal for all three peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” “This kind of state does not guarantee the equality before the law for all three peoples,” he added. “The number of Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina is less and less every single year. Before the war, the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna [Sarajevo] had 520,000 Catholics, and the number is now around 180,000,” Cardinal Puljic explained. “How can I be silent facing those facts? Every year we are 8,000-10,000 less.” He blamed a “lack of political will” as the main obstacle preventing refugees from returning home. The cardinal said it was “particularly inexcusable” that resources were not provided to Catholics to return and rebuild. “It is difficult now to talk about the return. People could not wait, and therefore they started a new life somewhere else. But their farms and ruins are still vivid witnesses of the crime committed. It is not a question of return anymore; now it is a question of the survival of those who remained and still live here.” Cardinal Puljic hoped the papal visit would advance equal treatment for Catholics. “The Pope does not want to defend Catholics and ask privileges for them — No! But we expect that Catholics, who are mostly Croats, have the same rights as the two other constituent peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Bishop Tomo Vukšic of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Military Ordinariate also blamed a lack of political will for post-war failures, such as allowing the return of refugees. In his view, the country now lives under an “unjust peace.” “It’s a peace because thanks to God there is no war, and this is a great benefit of this Dayton Agreement,” Bishop Vukšic told CNA March 31. “But it’s an unjust peace because first of all it didn't allow for refugees to return. Many people were left without the real possibility of returning, security wasn't guaranteed, the possibility wasn't organized, and in the end many, whether Catholic or Orthodox, didn't come back.” The structure of political life, election laws, and the distribution of humanitarian aid also incorporates the elements of an “unjust peace.” Bishop Vukšic recapped the dissolution of Yugoslavia; the idea that the country was indissoluble was one source of the conflict. The Yugoslavian communist army was mostly controlled by Serbian officers. Serbian nationalist ambitions to unite all territories with Serbian residents was also a factor in the conflict, because in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosniaks and Croats opposed this tendency. “It led to many deaths and a lot of destruction,” the bishop said. While ethnic and religious identity almost entirely overlapped among the warring factions, he said this was a result of centuries-old historical processes. “Religion was an entirely secondary matter, it was not part of the war either as a cause or a consequence.” Many Catholics lived in ethnically mixed villages and cities, which suffered significantly in periods of ethnic cleansing. “Different Catholics had to run away or were kicked out during the war,” Bishop Vukšic said. After the war their houses and jobs had been destroyed and they lacked security, forcing them to move elsewhere. Bishop Vukšic said the country’s bishops and other Catholics are doing “everything that is possible” to help people return, but added that it is the responsibility of the government and the international community to establish a just parliament and just laws. The bishops can “preach great principles,” help with dialogue, and help the Catholic relief agency Caritas, he maintains. He said he believes Pope Francis will address “the question of justice” among other themes during his visit to Sarajevo.
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