Christianity's Checkered Past in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Has Seen Half Its Catholics Leave Since the ’90s War

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ROME, JUNE 20, 2003 ( John Paul II this Sunday will visit a Bosnia-Herzegovina that received Christianity in apostolic times, but is now watching a steady exodus of its Catholics.

Half the Catholics, in fact, have left after the war of the 1990s. The story of Christianity in these lands goes back two millenniums.

In his Second Letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul wrote that his pupil Titus had traveled to Dalmatia, an area that embraced much of today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There were at least four dioceses in this territory in the sixth century, but with the advent of the barbarians, Christianity virtually disappeared, until the region was re-Christianized. Episcopal sees were re-established in the 11th century.

The Order of Preachers (Dominicans) arrived in the territory shortly after the order’s foundation and remained there until the 14th century. Beginning in 1291, they were joined by the Friars Minor (Franciscans), who took over the administration of the Church in the 14th century.

After the Turkish conquest of Bosnia (1463) and Herzegovina (1482), the situation worsened notably. Beginning in 1735, Bosnia (with the exception of Trebinje) had an apostolic vicar. Since 1846, there has been a vicar for Bosnia and another for Herzegovina.

Under the Ottomans, Catholics often suffered persecution. A minority of them converted to Islam, at a time when Ottomans accepted Orthodox colonists from the East, thus contributing to change the confessional map of the area.

It was not until the end of the Turkish regime that, with the advent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1878), it was possible to re-establish the ecclesial hierarchy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In 1881, Pope Leo XIII created the ecclesial province of Vrhbosna, to which the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna (with its see in Sarajevo) and the Diocese of Mostar-Duvno (with its see in Mostar) belonged, and that of Banja Luka. In 1890, the Diocese of Trebinje was added to the sees. It is administered by the bishop of Mostar.

Since 1994, Bosnia-Herzegovina has had its own episcopal conference. Until the last war (1991-1995), there were 10 Greek-Catholic parishes (Ukrainians) with some 5,000 faithful, administered by the Eparchy of Krizevci (Croatia).

In addition to the Franciscans, who have two provinces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are several religious orders with their own provinces, including Franciscan nuns (Mostar, Sarajevo), the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent of Paul (Sarajevo), the Handmaids of the Child Jesus (Sarajevo), and houses and convents of other women’s orders.

As a result of the last war, the number of Catholics has been reduced by half. With the exception of some small groups, almost all of them are Croats. It is estimated that there are between 450,000 and 500,000 Catholics.

Banja Luka Diocese

The Diocese of Banja Luka, which the Pope will visit on Sunday, was founded in 1881. Its bishop, Franjo Komarica, also presides over the episcopal conference. Diocesan priests are helped in their pastoral work by Franciscans and nuns of various orders. The diocese does not have its own seminary, but there is an Institute of Theology in Banja Luka.

About two-thirds of the Catholics were displaced during the war, many of whom have been unable to return. The diocese numbers some 50,000 faithful.

During the 1990s war, in this diocese alone, 39 churches were destroyed, and 22 suffered serious damage. Nine chapels were devastated and 14 suffered considerable damage. In addition, 33 cemeteries and two convents were damaged, one severely.

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