Sarajevo’s Catholic leaders, mayor spar over minority rights

Children dressed as angels arrive to re-enact a nativity scene during 2011 Christmas celebrations in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Sarajevo Catholic officials say the city's Muslim-dominated government is not protecting minority rights, but the mayor s aid his city is committed to providing a home for all religious faiths. (CNS photo/Dado Ruvic, Reuters)

OXFORD, England (CNS) — Sarajevo Catholic officials say the city’s Muslim-dominated government is not protecting minority rights, but the mayor said his city is committed to providing a home for all religious faiths.

Sarajevo Mayor Alija Behmen said city authorities “treat all citizens equally and pay equal attention to all — the structure of the city council and city administration is multinational and multireligious.”

“Sarajevo has cultivated multiculturalism for centuries, which is a rarity in Europe, and will continue doing so. This is an axiom for our city’s authorities,” Behmen told Catholic News Service.

In an April statement, Bosnian Cardinal Vinko Puljic said Christians faced an uncertain future in the predominantly Muslim city after their numbers decreased by a third in the past decade.

In an April 6 statement commemorating the start of the 1992-95 siege by Bosnian Serb forces, the cardinal said: “After such a violent and senseless war, it was hard to believe Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jews could live together any longer. With positions opposed between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians, the reality by which diverse peoples lived together here has begun to splinter and falter.”

Behmen told Catholic News Service May 9 that the city’s demographic structure had changed, but added that he had no current data on its inhabitants and their ethnic backgrounds.

“Sarajevo has realized a successful cooperation with religious communities and churches for many years and supported their activities financially in restoring and rebuilding religious structures, including places of cultural and historic heritage, as well as in backing educational, social and humanitarian events,” he said.

He added that his office would investigate claims of discrimination and rejected suggestions city authorities were “under pressure” to promote Islamic values by restricting alcohol and imposing dress codes on non-Muslims.

However, the vicar-general of the Sarajevo Archdiocese, Msgr. Matko Zovkic, accused the mayor of “ignoring realities.”

“In theory, everyone is treated equally under the law here, but in practice this isn’t the case,” Msgr. Zovkic told CNS May 11.

“Bosnia has been ‘ethnicized’ by war and conflict, and we’re clearly feeling the rule of the Muslim majority. There were 35,000 registered Catholics here two decades ago, and there are now just 11,000, fewer than 2 percent of Sarajevo’s population. The mayor either doesn’t care or doesn’t see the real situation,” he said.

Catholics constituted 18 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s population of 4.3 million before the war; 44 percent were Muslims and 35 percent were Serbian Orthodox.

However, the country’s four Catholic dioceses currently number fewer than half their inhabitants before the conflict, which left more than 100,000 people dead and ended with the formation of separate Bosnian Serb and Croat-Muslim entities in one country.

Church leaders have complained of worsening conditions under the Muslim-dominated Sarajevo city council, citing problems with obtaining permits for building and other initiatives.

In January 2011, Cardinal Puljic was ordered to hand over his residence to a former communist police agent, who claimed to be the rightful occupier.

In 2010, the archdiocese accused radical Muslims of stirring interfaith tensions after councilors threatened to tear down a planned monument to Blessed John Paul II, who visited the city in 1997.

The secretary-general of Bosnia’s Sarajevo-based Catholic bishops’ conference, Msgr. Ivo Tomasevic, told CNS in 2011 that 85 percent of the population of Sarajevo, which was rebuilt with European Union funding, was Muslim, while Christians had fallen to around 15,000, or just 2 percent.

He added that alterations to the 1995 Dayton peace accord, giving Bosnian Muslims eight ministerial posts in the federation government, and Croats and Serbs five and three respectively, had “made things continually worse for Christians” by handing full decision-making power to Muslims, who also appoint the country’s president and prime minister.

— By Jonathan Luxmoore, Catholic News Service