Catholics alarm in Bosnia and Herzegovina: declining numbers and fewer rights compared to the rest of the population

Emigration is one of the major problems increasing at a slow yet steady pace, to the extent that it risks causing “the disappearance of Catholics” from the Country. The figures leave no room for hope. There were 740 726 Catholics in the Country before the war, today they amount to approximately 400 thousand, while every year 15 thousand faithful are cancelled from the civil registry

A complex situation that has been ongoing for years and grew worse since the end of the war in 1995. It’s the conclusion of the bishops of Bosnia and Herzegovina whose 70th Plenary assembly ended a few days ago. Emigration is one of the major problems, increasing at a slow yet steady pace, to the extent that it risks causing “the disappearance of Catholics” from the Country, declared the Bishops’ President Cardinal Vinko Puljic.

The figures leave no room for hope: before the war broke out in the Country the Catholic population numbered 740 726. Only 400 000 are left today, while every year 15 thousand Catholic are cancelled from the civil registry.

“The reasons are complex – said Msgr. Tomo Vuksic, military ordinary of Bosnia-Herzegovina – this decline is partly due to emigration, especially that of young people seeking better job opportunities; but there also is the problem of refugees and of those driven out of their homes – approximately 67% of all Catholics”. The prelate said with bitterness: “public authorities at all levels have lacked the will to promote their return.” It is particularly evident in certain dioceses with a significant presence of Catholics, such as Banja Luka, where the efforts of the local bishop Msgr. Franjo Komarica of rebuilding the homes of the few Catholics who have returned are obstructed in every possible way. This is coupled by a difficult social situation, whereby 30 to 40%  are unemployed, and 60% of youths are without a job. Many factories have been shut down, corruption is widespread among the ruling class and the political scenario gives no hope of a change. “The average wage amounts to 800 Marks – 450 EUR – there are visible signs of poverty especially in large cities – said Msgr Vuksic -. Many poor people turn to Caritas, but unfortunately not everyone can be helped. The government should have the political strength and identify the best solutions to address these situations.”

The Dayton agreement. The Dayton agreement imposed by the United States at the end of the war divides the territory into the Srpska Republic, where the Serbian-Orthodox population lives, and in the Bosnia and Herzegovina Federation, with a Bosniak-Muslim population majority. Catholic Croatians, representing 15% of the overall population, are present in both areas, but according to the Catholic Church they don’t enjoy equal rights compared to the other two large ethnic groups. “The Country’s composition was created to the detriment of the third ethnic group, the Croatians,” Msgr. Vuksic pointed out: “Although Croatians’ rights are enshrined in the Constitution, in practical terms those rights are not respected, especially when it comes to electing their government representatives. It happened that Bosniaks elected the representatives of the Croatian population. Such practice occurs at the highest level of the presidency and at all lower administrative levels of local authorities.” This is a fertile ground for social tensions and it’s an insult to the pride of the entire Croatian community which looses the desire to oppose itself and become an active part of the political process. A concrete example of an inferior position of the Croatians is the fact that Catholics are the beneficiaries of only 3-4% of all aids sent by the international community. However, the bishops are not resigned and have openly denounced the unfair treatment and the failure to respect the rights of Croatians.

“This is obviously an uncomfortable truth for some determined to silence the Church”, said Msgr. Vuksic. Cardinal Puljic even described “a recently developed climate that is part of an evil strategy aimed as silencing the Church”, with fabricated accusations against the Church and her bishops.

Is there a way out, a formula to move forward? There is no easy answer, but for Msgr. Vuksic Bosnia and Herzegovina are “a small big reality. The situation is extremely complex, and the challenge to identify a solution that will satisfy everyone is huge.” In his opinion, “in the political and social domains the starting point should be the constitutional principle providing for equal rights to all, ensuring its application at all levels of State administration.” If not, “unfair disparities will take shape. Social services should be available to everyone, not only in material terms but also at political, cultural levels as well as in other areas.” We hope that 22 years after the end of the war this land will identify the best path leading to a better future for all: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croatians.