Balkans' Mosaic of Religions Is Rebuilding

Archbishop of Belgrade Says Papal Visit Being Considered

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BELGRADE, Yugoslavia, JUNE 27, 2002 ( A decade after the outbreak of the Balkans conflicts, the Catholic Church is working to foster coexistence in this region. It is also hoping for a papal visit.

«Both in Siberia as well as Montenegro, steps have been taken in social development, which are recognized also at the international level,» says Archbishop Stanislav Hocevar of Belgrade. «The democratic method is being consolidated.»

«As the Catholic Church, we are determined to do everything possible to promote dialogue,» the archbishop told the Italian newspaper Avvenire. «It is a way that still needs many steps. Moreover, the Catholic Church is a minority in Serbia; it does not have important instruments to promote its activity.»

His statements were made following a meeting of the bishops’ conferences of the Balkans.

«In the beginning there was some fear: There was awareness of the weight of the recent past, the risk of being seen as those who would like to re-create a certain Yugoslavia,» the archbishop said. «Instead, it has been very useful to meet. At the end of the meeting, all the presidents of the episcopal conferences were very happy. We have agreed to further meetings. It is a very important event, also a sign for our countries.»

In this undertaking, he said, it is necessary «to respect the internal difficulties of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which today is living in a situation that is very different from the past.»

«In the era of Socialist Yugoslavia, the Orthodox Church was very united,» the Belgrade prelate said. «Now, instead, it has many dioceses outside of Serbia with the wounds inflicted by this war. For them it means rethinking the whole of their life, and this is very difficult.»

In the last months, there have been important ecumenical meetings, such as last month’s visit of Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, to Orthodox Patriarch Pavle.

«It is a change that the patriarch himself regards favorably,» Archbishop Hocevar. «In its latest statement the Orthodox Church has even put in writing the importance of meetings with other Churches. It is a significant event.»

In the past year, Serbia has taken a historical step in reintroducing the teaching of religion in schools.

«For the first time, we have all cooperated together: Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jews,» the archbishop said. «Each one has its own teachers. It is up to the students and their families to choose the religion class they want.»

He continued: «Following this experience, we want to promote a joint study on catechesis, because this is an element that in the past has been very neglected in these lands. The Orthodox Church itself in Serbia does not have a specific tradition. Little by little we are trying to make it come into existence together. We have invited experts from other countries to talk about how catechisms are prepared, what methods to use.»

The Catholic Church on Yugoslavia has invited the Pope to visit the country. The possibilities are being looked into, the archbishop explained.

«We must not think of this trip as something directed only to Catholics and Orthodox,» he cautioned. «It must be inserted in the whole complex reality of the Balkans. Therefore, we have to define the relations with Montenegro, Kosovo, and the question of Vojvodina.»

He added: «In establishing the itinerary these balances must be taken into account. No one must be wounded. However, the program cannot be made too heavy. The Vatican is not in a hurry for this trip, but it does want to make it the best possible.»

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