Bosnian cardinal saw Yugoslavian split, worked for reconciliation

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Bosnian Cardinal Vinko Puljic was appointed archbishop of Sarajevo as the end of communism in Eastern Europe brought hopes for peace, freedom and the respect of human rights in what was then Yugoslavia.

But less than a year after his appointment in 1990, Yugoslavia began splintering into independent nations, largely along ethnic lines, and Sarajevo became the scene of heavy fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina's war for independence.

Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo listens to a member speak during a House International Affairs Committee meeting in Washington July 25. (CNS photo by Nancy Wiechec)

The 1992-95 war and its legacy have deeply affected the 59-year-old cardinal, considered one of Eastern Europe's strong voices in the coming conclave.

Discrimination, violence and tension among Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs still plague the Balkan nation. In an April interview with the Italian Catholic magazine Il Regno, Cardinal Puljic placed part of the blame on the "unjust division of the country" into two federations: one Muslim-Croat and the other Serb-Bosnian. The two-federation system adopted by the 1995 Dayton peace accord "is a terrible invention" that "cannot work," he said.

"Divide the country and then pretend it is one nation?" he said. "This is deeply illogical."

Cardinal Puljic has been committed to rebuilding the church, ravaged by decades of communism and weakened by the mass exodus of Catholics during and after the war, and he has been a staunch proponent of constitutional reforms that would guarantee equal rights for the country's diverse ethnic and religious communities.

"It's necessary to build a state in which we can all be equal," where all citizens, all ethnicities, all religions enjoy equality, he said in May 2004 while in Rome for the plenary assembly of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

He called on the international community to help stabilize the country by doing more, including greater investment in Bosnia-Herzegovina's lagging economy.

"The situation (in Bosnia) still is not resolved," he said in May 2004. "Security has not been re-established, nor have equal rights for the people.

"The international community will not act until this equality (between ethnic groups) becomes a reality, and this is the problem," said the cardinal.

The cardinal said before the Bosnian war, Catholics in the Archdiocese of Sarajevo numbered some 528,000; that number has since dwindled to 215,000. Before the conflict, Catholics in Bosnia numbered some 900,000 people; by 2005 that figure fell to between 460,000 and 590,000, according to Il Regno.

Continued discrimination, violence and high unemployment have all helped contribute to the ongoing diaspora.

In 2002, the cardinal received the "International Forgiveness Prize" for his years spent promoting reconciliation. He used the $100,000 prize to rebuild a formation center for young people that had been closed under the communist Yugoslav regime.

Only 49 years old when he became the youngest member of the College of Cardinals in 1994, he said his nomination was a sign of the pope's concern about the war in Bosnia, which left more than 200,000 people dead and at least 800,000 people displaced from their homes.

But at the 1999 European synod, he reflected on the value of the pope's persistent appeals for peace in the Balkans and the role of the church, saying: "The power of prayer and the works of charity have brought an end to war in my country."

He remained optimistic for the country's future, insisting the only way forward was reconciliation through forgiveness.

"One must keep in mind that the gradual healing of the wounds from the war and building reconciliation and trust take time," he said November 2002.

"We hope to succeed in building up dialogue (with Bosnian Muslims and Serbs) and with the help of the law, the possibility of living together," peacefully, he said in 2004.

The cardinal said he believed religions could do much to prevent conflict and reconcile populations. He has been a strong proponent of the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which aims to promote religious tolerance and understanding among Muslims, Orthodox, Catholics and Jews.

During the Bosnian conflict, Cardinal Puljic condemned the "ethnic cleansing" policy of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. At the same time, he sought to build alliances among Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish leaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In 1998, the cardinal and dozens of Catholic faithful were trapped inside a church by a mob of Bosnian Serbs.

The mob threw stones at the cardinal and those hoping to attend his Mass, then tried to set fire to the church. Police and NATO peacekeeping forces escorted the cardinal and the Catholics out of the area in armored cars.

Although he is the leading prelate in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cardinal Puljic has been reserved in talking about the alleged Marian apparitions in Medjugorje. He has continued to support of the Yugoslav bishops' 1991 statement, which said, "It cannot be confirmed that supernatural apparitions or revelations are occurring there."

"I like to encourage people who pray and have devotions to Our Lady, but our statement said priests should not officially organize and lead pilgrimages to Medjugorje," he said.

Vinko Puljic was born in Prijecani, in the Bosnian region of Yugoslavia, Sept. 8, 1945. After high school studies at the minor seminaries in Zagreb and Djakovo, he studied philosophy and theology at the major seminary in Djakovo. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1970 for the Diocese of Banja Luka.

He spent the first eight years of his priesthood in various parishes, then was named spiritual director of a minor seminary in 1978. He returned to parish ministry in 1987 and was named vice rector of the Sarajevo major seminary in the summer of 1990.


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