Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Religious persecution and fundamentalism in Bosnia; reflection on my time living in the region in the 80's

I saw this on Catholic Culture's news panel.   It has particular interest to me for a special reason, explained below the story.  The original story comes from Aid to the Church in Need:

Nuns report increased verbal abuse and discrimination in Bosnia


Ivanka Mihaljevic, Bosnian Provincial Superior of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King, made the claim during a visit to the international headquarters of Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Königstein.


The nuns now only leave the convent in pairs if at all possible, out of fear of abuse.


Everyday life is becoming increasingly difficult in general, according to Sister Ivanka, especially as more and more Muslim extremists are immigrating from Saudi Arabia and opening businesses.

Sr. Ivanka Mihaljevic
The nuns often have no other choice but to buy from them, but in doing so are also subjected to discrimination and humiliations.


A recent example occurred when one of the Sisters wanted to buy bread.


“Although the loaves were in plain sight, the proprietor claimed he was out of bread,” Sister Ivanka said. “But he simply did not want to sell it to a Catholic nun.”


“Again and again, we are made to feel unwelcome, even though this is our home.”

By contrast, Sister Ivanka emphasized, native Bosnian Muslims are “peaceable,” and are often ashamed of the behavior of their extremist co-religionists who are migrating to the country.


The Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King in Sarajevo are particularly committed to promoting the peaceful coexistence of all religions. They have launched a three-year program entitled, “I extend to you my hand for peaceful coexistence.”


In this initiative, Catholics, Muslims and Serbian Orthodox Christians are jointly working to promote tolerance, non-violence and mutual respect.


This year, the Province Superior explained, the joint effort against verbal abuse tops the agenda.

“These are small steps of peace and goodwill, but we want to imbue the people with courage.”


The Bosnian Province of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King comprises 260 nuns, of whom 15 live in Sarajevo.  (source)



Just some days prior, Aid to the Church in Need ran an article in which Cardinal Vinko Puljic discussed the fundamentalism rising in Bosnia.  Here is an excerpt

Cardinal Vinko Puljic, the Archbishop of Sarajevo, highlighted the growth of extremism in the country during a visit to the international headquarters of Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).


The 66-year-old cardinal said that the growing process of Islamization in Bosnia-Herzegovina is being funded by radicals in the Middle East.


He said, “Muslim centers and mosques have been built in many places with oil-dollars from Saudi Arabia.”


During the ACN interview in Königstein, Germany, the cardinal stressed the spread of Wahhabism, an Islamic reform movement, which is the official religion of Saudi Arabia.


Many commentators have linked Wahhabism to terrorist movements such as al-Qaeda.


The Archbishop of Sarajevo said that there are already 3-5,000 Wahhabis in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the group is seeking to gain influence in society.

Cardinal Puljic said, “Nobody in the government has the courage to do anything to prevent this development.”


According to ACN’s report on the oppression of Christians, Persecuted and Forgotten?, more than 100,000 young Bosnian Muslims have encountered Wahhabi Islam through organizations such as Active Islamic Youth, Furqan, and the Muslim Youth Council.


Cardinal Puljic added, “In recent years, at least 70 new mosques have been built in Sarajevo alone.”


[snip]


While mosques are being built or repaired, Cardinal Puljic pointed out that building approval for churches can be delayed for years, adding that Church property confiscated under communism has still not been returned.


He said that the government “has no interest in giving the Catholic Church back its property,” while in most cases Muslim property has been returned.


The Archbishop of Sarajevo went on to say that “Catholics are systematically disadvantaged” and demanded equal treatment for Catholics in employment, education and other spheres of life. (source)


What this will mean, also, is a shrinking number of Catholics in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), just as there are increasing shifts seen in certain areas of the Middle East.   We see this happening in places like Kazahkstan, as well.  There comes a point when Croatians living in BiH decide that there are better opportunities in Croatia and less threats to life and limb if they simply move. It leads to the de-Christianization of an area.  

If this keeps going in the direction it is headed, we will likely see martyrs in the future, as well.  As we have seen here in the U.S. with what black people suffered not too long ago, the kind of discrimination talked about by Sr. Ivanka, can lead to even worse things than denying someone a loaf of bread.

Pray for the people in that very troubled region, especially those persecuted in any way.  

EDIT:  This came out a few days later, also from Aid to the Church in Need which is trying to raise money for  a Carmelite monastery in Bosnia


Living in nearby Herzegovina


This was of particular interest to me because I had discerned a vocation with the sister province  of the School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King in Herzegovina (Mostar) in the early 80's, straight out of high school.  Chronic digestive problems related to diet and an intolerance to mineral/spring water (our main source of hydration) forced me home at about 95 pounds (43 kg). The two year battle with my gut left me in a weakened, sickly state and I had no choice but to leave while in the novitiate.  I spent my first three days back in the US, in a hospital.  I would later learn, stateside, that I also had a diseased gall-bladder.  Today, I am being checked for celiac (gluten intolerance).  I was given a letter of recommendation by my Provincial in Herzegovina to take to the American province in Lemont, Illinois.  I visited there and went on a discernment weekend. Things were fine there, but I just did not feel called to that particular community.  I explored other communities stateside and had the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, been around in those days, I would have surely discerned with them.

I had very little interaction with local muslims, but what I do recall is that they were not militant fundamentalists.  On my few trips into town, we didn't hesitate to purchase things from muslim-run stores or restaurants, nor did I ever feel discriminated against.  In fact, one of the postulants introduced me to a friend she knew from school who was muslim, and the girl took us to a mosque and explained some things to me.  It just so happened to be Ramadan, which I did not know about, and I recall being somewhat in awe at the willingness of people to go without food or drink for so long while some Catholics gripe about only having three meals on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.   It was a very cordial encounter, lifting somewhat of a mystery to me.   It seems today, as Sr. Ivanka pointed out, there are fundamentalists migrating into the region.   This, of course, could sweep in people from among that non-militant population, especially young Bosniaks.

One might wonder how an American with a polish last name ends up discerning a vocation in a place like Herzegovina.  Well, my mother was of Croatian descent and I was very active in my high school years in the Croatian parish, formerly known as St. Jerome in Detroit (8 Mile Rd); and, now known as St. Lucy's in Troy.  I was raised in what was, at the time, one of the most "liberal" parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit. This led my Polish father to take refuge with his family in the Croatian parish after he saw it's rich, Catholic identity about the time I entered high school (much like many non-Slovaks take refuge in the ethnic-Slovak parish of Ss Cyril & Methodius in Sterling Heights).  At St. Jerome's, most of the youth were involved in an ethnic dance group that traveled to other Croatian communities for events and performances (see this promotional video for Lado, a professional group out of Croatia).

I first saw the sisters in Chicago with their long, brown habits.  I was attracted to religious life from the time of my Confirmation, but I was not at all attraced to the form of religious life that emerged following Vatican II which was mostly devoid of community life.  The sisters in Chicago were living out their vocations exactly as I had envisioned mine. 

The Herzegovina province has sisters in a handful of Croatian parishes between the US and Canada.  My hope was to to eventually be sent home to the US to work in one of those parishes, but I was equally comfortable with remaining there, as well - one of the most geographically, beautiful countries in the world.  I recently found this picture of the top of the Velež mountain, from behind which the sun would rise each morning.

While the call I heard to the School Sisters of St. Francis of Christ the King in Herzegovina was not where God intended me to stay, I truly believe He led me there for the experiences.  I still draw on the lessons I learned there and I will always be indebted to the sisters for their care.  My experience with the community was very good.  Living with the sisters for over two years, I was exposed to the same, rich, Catholic heritage I had at St. Jerome's, but it had spiritual depth to it.  I learned that no work should be considered beneath our dignity, and that there is a value in time spent peeling dozens of potatoes.  At times it was opportunity to build relationships with peers while doing something mundane; and, at other times it was an opportunity to listen and talk to God in silence.

I was arrived there in late 1980 and remained until early 1983.  The motherhouse was just a short driving distance - 30 minutes, if not less - from Medjugorje. While many sisters believed in the authenticity of the alleged aparitions in Medjugorje (St. James was served by the Herzegovina province), not all did.  Some believed in sticking to basics and remained cautious.  I don't know whether that trend continued over these 30 years or not.  I was initially well disposed, and hopeful.  Today, after much study and prayer, I remain very skeptical.  I anxiously await news from the Holy See now that an international commission investigates the alleged apparitions.  I don't "hope" that it is condemned; rather, my hope is that the commission discovers the truth concerning the events and the Holy Father acts accordingly for the good of the Church. 

Some years ago, doing some research, I had stumbled upon photos of the building I once lived in (top floor).  The war was not too friendly to it, nor to the sisters who fled under bombing and grenades on April 1, 1992.  I have often wondered if any perished as a direct result of assaults during the war. 



They have a new campus now, and their website reveals additional buildings in the area of Mostar.





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2 comments:

JACK said...

Prayer for these sisters. They are potentially future martyrs.

Diane M. Korzeniewski, OCDS said...

I just updated my story with another link just sent to me, also by Aid to the Church in Need, on the rise of fundamentalism in the area.

"potential future martyrs" - you betcha. It starts out with discrimination, which is rooted in hatred.

I updated my post with that point, as well.