The names of Bosnia Herzegovina’s four dioceses – Sarajevo, Mostar-Duvno, Banja Luka – bring into mind the atrocities against civilians committed in the war that scarred the former Yugoslavia after the collapse of Tito’s communist regime. On December 14th 1995 leaders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia signed in Paris the Dayton Accord, which put an end to three-and-a-half years of war in the Balkans. Bosnia Herzegovina was split in two: Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina and the so-called Republika Srpska, where in the past there were 200,000 more Catholics than nowadays. Many Bosnians escaped the war and found refuge in other European countries, as well as in America and Australia. The majority of them are still in exile.
The Catholic Church is also still recovering from the suffering that Bosnia has endured in the last decades: according to Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo, 600 churches were damaged or destroyed in the past war. The country’s difficult economic situation – it currently has an unemployment rate of 45% – as well as the reduced number of faithful, makes it quite difficult for the Church to carry on its work in Bosnia.
Given that a significant part of the Church’s infrastructure was destroyed during the war, Aid to the Church in Need has supported building projects in Bosnia to rebuild some churches, a minor and a major seminaries, and a youth centre in Sarajevo. ACN also helps with transport projects, since in Bosnia’s bigger parishes a priest needs to travel far to attend to his flock. ‘A priest in Bosnia is also a social worker’, cardinal Puljic explained, ‘he is like an “errand boy”. For instance, the other day a priest was telling me he had to take an elderly lady to the doctor in his car. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to go.’ The public transport in Bosnia isn’t very efficient and often elderly people find themselves isolated in Bosnia’s most remote villages.
The Cardinal of Sarajevo emphasised the key role played by the so-called “Europa schools” in rebuilding Bosnia after the war. Many returned to their homeland because of these schools, since having access to education for their children often is crucial in the refugees’ decision to either remain in their countries or go abroad. These schools, run by the Catholic Church, are open to children from all religious groups and are intended as a foundation for peaceful coexistence in Bosnia. Aid to the Church in Need has supported the “European schools” in Bosnia-Herzegovina right from the start, as they are centres both for education and inter-religious dialogue. Through these schools a united country can be built, instead of an ethnically divided society.
In his last visit to ACN’s headquarters, Cardinal Vinko Puljic from Sarajevo explained that in this year’s diocesan synod, the difficult situation of Catholics in Bosnia will be addressed. The Church’s first priority is the work with the families, especially when many youngsters decide to leave the country and the elderly people are left alone. The cardinal wants to give courage to the priests and religious in Bosnia, for example, by giving himself spiritual exercises to deacons, seminarians, nuns, etc. When asked where he gets his strength from, Cardinal Puljic’s answer was adamant: ‘I take all my strength from prayer’. He also expressed his belief that hope never dies and thus he still believes in Bosnia’s future. The cardinal himself was a victim of religious hatred: in 1998 he suffered a terror attack whilst celebrating Mass. The cardinal of Sarajevo affirmed that the Church in Bosnia ‘carry[s] on…I hope that with the help of my collaborators we continue our spiritual, moral and material work so that the person is complete’.