e-mail us
Catholic leaders warn of hunger in Serbia

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Warsaw, Poland

The head of Yugoslavia’s largest Catholic aid organization has warned of widespread hunger in the country this winter and condemned the civilian hardships inflicted by NATO’s “stupid and senseless” mid-1999 bombing campaign.

“The outside world is only looking at Kosovo, although there are desperate people here, too -- including hundreds of thousands of refugees without homes or jobs,” said Fr. Antun Pecar, director of Yugoslavia’s Caritas agency.

“One is bound to ask the sense of NATO’s action, which killed people in their homes or destroyed their livelihoods. What improvements did this stupid campaign achieve?”

The Croatian-born priest was speaking amid reports of growing poverty in bomb-damaged areas of Yugoslavia, accompanied by shortages of food, clothing, medicines and energy.

He said most citizens now lacked money to buy basic necessities, including milk, sugar and oil, while many had been left jobless by the forced closure of industrial plants.

“By bombing roads, bridges and power stations, NATO merely closed down the installations from which people made their living,” Pecar told NCR.

“Although Yugoslavia was never on a par with Germany, France or Italy, it had strong industries once. Now this has all gone, leaving future generations deprived of possibilities to live and develop.”

The Catholic church has five dioceses in Serbia and Montenegro, the states making up what remains of Yugoslavia, although up to 75 percent of church members fled during the country’s 1990-’91 break-up.

Although most large towns suffered severe damage during NATO’s March-June bombing raids, Western leaders have said that reconstruction aid will be withheld until the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic is replaced.

The Catholic bishop of Subotica, János Pénzes, denied as “exaggerated” early November claims by Germany’s charity Catholic Aid to the Church in Need that parts of Yugoslavia were now “threatened by famine,” and said that hospitals were still accepting patients and performing operations.

“However, the general prognosis is grave everywhere,” Pénzes told NCR.

“Thanks to Caritas and other agencies, emergency supplies are still getting through from abroad, along with people to distribute them. But NATO bombing and sanctions have had dire consequences at a time when the economy was already weakened.”

Asked about the position of local Catholics, most of whom are ethnic Croats and Hungarians, the bishop said he was not aware of any new anti-minority pressure or “anti-Catholic mood.”

“Ecumenical ties with the predominant Orthodox church and other denominations are functioning well,” Pénzes said. “No one has problems here because they are Catholics and the religious climate is good.”

Pecar said Caritas had been receiving aid in cooperation with other humanitarian agencies, but was obliged to distribute it according to government “procedures and propositions.”

He said that food supplies would go “nowhere near to solving current problems,” adding that energy shipments were needed to restart idle factories.

“Although I cannot give political advice, every suggestion of help to suffering people here is welcome,” the priest continued, speaking from his parish house in the southeastern city of Nis.

“What NATO has perpetrated is a terrible reflection on the human character. The international community should stop playing politics with the fate of poor ordinary people who have done nothing and have nothing.”

A total of 14 lorries were still awaiting government permits to enter Yugoslavia from Macedonia at the end of November with 350 tons of heating oil for opposition-controlled Nis.

The mayor of the 350,000-inhabitant city, Zoran Zivkovic, denounced the blocking of the consignment, sent under the European Union’s “Energy for Democracy” program, and warned of riots if Belgrade’s “incomparable manipulation” continued.

In an October statement with Germany’s Evangelical church, the Serbian Orthodox church cautioned that Yugoslavia’s “very difficult situation” was poised to “worsen dramatically,” adding that continued aid was essential to prevent “disastrous events.”

In a Nov. 19 statement, the church’s governing Holy Synod said Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant representatives planned after a meeting in Norway to urge the United Nations to lift sanctions.

The Orthodox statement added that interethnic conflicts and NATO bombing had caused a “humanitarian and ecological catastrophe,” and said that European churches would be asked to fund the building of bridges over the Danube River as a symbol of “the necessity for spiritual bridges connecting Europe’s peoples.”

The Vatican’s Belgrade nuncio, Archbishop Santos Abril Castello, told NCR his office was experiencing power cuts, adding that various foodstuffs were now in short supply in the capital.

However, he added that he had not been kept directly informed of humanitarian needs or notified of the country’s worst affected areas.

“The Holy See has done a lot at various moments,” Castello said.

“However, the question of resuming Western aid is a political issue that we cannot comment on.”

Yugoslavia’s newly formed Catholic Bishops’ Conference called in late November for Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant bishops to draw up a joint appeal to the country’s Christians at an ecumenical meeting in May 2000.

National Catholic Reporter, December 10, 1999