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Croat cardinal seeks help to rebuild church in Bosnia

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Memphis, Tenn.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon here, security officers patrolled the rectory office at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception where Cardinal Vinko Puljic sat near the window. While officers paced nervously, Puljic, the serene archbishop of war-ravaged Sarajevo, seemed exceedingly relaxed. He fingered the shining crucifix on his chest and smiled warmly, even as he recalled the most recent attempt on his life.

In April, Puljic, a Bosnian Croat, had sought permission to celebrate Mass in the Serb-controlled, Northern Bosnian city of Derventa. The church there had been attacked during the four-year war. Its windows had been broken, its doors ripped off. It had been largely abandoned since most of the local Croats fled the area.

Puljic said the local authorities told him it would be safe to say Mass in the embattled church for the few Croats who remained. But when he arrived, a mob of angry Serbs had already started to gather outside the building. The mob tipped over worshipers’ cars and threw rocks into the open church.

Puljic, at 53 the world’s youngest cardinal, said he was crouching in a corner when someone threw an explosive device into the building. It malfunctioned and did not go off. If it had detonated, he said, he and the nuns, priests and lay people who were with him would have been killed or severely injured.

The riot continued for six hours before NATO peacekeeping troops arrived. They provided little protection for the captives, however, who had to run through the stone-hurling crowd from the church to waiting buses. One person, a priest who was shielding Puljic with his body, was severely injured.

“This was not the only attack, but it was one of the most difficult because I did not expect it, Puljic said through his interpreter. I had received a written promise of protection.

In his homeland, such promises are often broken, Puljic explained in an exclusive Oct. 10 interview with NCR. In the Dayton peace agreement that ended the Bosnian war in 1995, leaders of the Serb, Croat and Muslim communities agreed to allow all refugees to return to their native regions. International troops were sent to facilitate that process.

Not welcomed back

But Puljic said leaders have not welcomed Croat refugees back to their homes, now in Serb- and Muslim-held territories. Local governments have destroyed or confiscated Catholic buildings and prohibited the construction of new ones. And the international community has been passive and nonsupportive.

To make things worse, refugees from Kosovo, who are mostly ethnic Albanians fleeing Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevics violent crackdown on a liberation movement there, have been settling in Bosnia.

The present situation in Kosovo is already destabilizing Bosnia,” Puljic says. Bosnian Muslims are welcoming new [Albanian] Muslims and creating a new strain on Croatian-Muslim relations. The international community should issue air strikes [against Serbia] and stop the genocide.

Puljic is popular among both Croats and Muslims in Bosnia. He is seen as a moderating force who favors a multiethnic, multi-religious Bosnia-Herzegovina where all ethnic groups coexist peacefully. This is not a new vision. It is essentially the Bosnia that existed before the war, which began in 1992 after the country declared its independence from Yugoslavia, now recognized by the United States as Serbia and Montenegro.

The Yugoslav government responded to Bosnias secession militarily. It provided financial backing to Bosnian Serbs who besieged the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo for 42 months. Sniper fire pummeled the city day and night. Food and water were scarce. More than 10,000 people died in the city alone.

In the countryside, Bosnian Serbs committed some of the worst atrocities seen in Europe since the Nazis, including torturing and killing Muslims and Croats in concentration camps. To a much smaller extent, Muslims and Croats also committed war crimes against Serbs, who are mostly Orthodox.

Far from removing himself from the violence that has racked his country this decade, Puljic has experienced the horrors of the war firsthand. Like most Sarajevans, Puljic ran through sprays of bullets while the city was under siege by Bosnian Serbs. His residence was shelled, and all of the citys 144 churches were either damaged or destroyed.

Between 1992 and 1994, Puljic saw about 75 percent of the citys 520,000 Catholics flee his archdiocese, along with most of their priests and nuns. Eight priests and two nuns were killed in the war.

Puljic says church leaders in Bosnia are trying desperately to attract Catholics back to Sarajevo and other areas where they once lived. They are trying to rebuild churches and other Catholic buildings that were damaged or destroyed. And Puljic is asking U.S. Catholics to help them.

Raising money for churches

Puljic spent ten days in October touring the United States, raising money for churches in Bosnia. In addition to Memphis, Puljic traveled to Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, South Bend, Ind., and Newark, N.J. Along the way, he accepted awards, met with Croatian and Bosnian refugees, presided over Masses and promoted a book, Healing the Heart of Croatia. The book was cowritten by a Memphis diocesan priest, Fr. Joseph Kerrigan, and a pediatric heart surgeon, William Novick.

In public speeches and interviews, Puljic tactfully chided the international community for not doing more to help his country become more economically and politically stable. But he lauded Catholic charities and other agencies in the United States.

Puljic praised Kerrigan and Novick of the Memphis-based International Children’s Heart Foundation in particular for providing lifesaving heart surgery for children suffering from congenital heart defects in the Balkans. Healing the Heart of Croatia, which was released by Paulist Press this month, chronicles the stories of 12 Croatian children Novick has treated since 1993. Proceeds from the book benefit the nonprofit foundation.

Novick, the heart foundations founder, has treated children with heart defects from all over the world, including Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Palestine and, recently, Bosnia. In May he successfully completed Bosnias first open-heart surgery in Sarajevo, where he operated on 29 children in two weeks. He is also helping the Bosnian medical community build its own heart surgery program. He plans to return for another surgical trip in March.

Kerrigan, associate pastor of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, has raised money and mobilized the Memphis Catholic community to help children from Bosnia and Croatia. He speaks fluent Serbo-Croatian and has made many trips with the foundation to those two countries where he ministers to the spiritual needs of the patients and their families.

While in the United States, Puljic received the award for international humanitarian service from the University of Notre Dame. Previous winners include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. The cardinal also was honored with the Bishop Carroll T. Dozier Peace and Justice Award from Christian Brothers University in Memphis.

National Catholic Reporter, October 30, 1998