By: Murcadha O Flaherty
Up to 10,000 Catholics are leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina every year because of state discrimination against the religious minority, according to the country's cardinal. Cardinal Vinko Puljić, Archbishop of Vrhbosna, highlighted the alarming exodus in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need. He said the ongoing haemorrhaging was a legacy of the 1992-95 war that caused at least 250,000 of the faithful - around half the country's Catholics - to become refugees.
The cardinal said: "During the war and in the immediate aftermath of the war most of the Catholics were expelled from their homes and there was a great deal of destruction and looting. After the war there was neither political nor financial support provided for an ongoing return of the refugees and expelled."
Referring to the legacy of the peace agreement reached in 1995, he added: "The Dayton Accords were not implemented in practice, and those who suffered most were the Catholic Croat minority. It is harder for them to defend their basic rights."
Cardinal Puljić warned that the community faced an unstable future. He said: "The resulting insecurity is evident today among the people, and some people are leaving the country for this reason. They are concerned for the future of their children."
He added: "The situation has been exacerbated by various negative reports in the media, which have been exploited in order to poison the atmosphere."
Describing prejudice against the faithful, he said: "There are no equal rights for them in those areas where the Catholic minority finds itself in the midst of a majority of the other ethnic groups. This discrimination is expressed in political and administrative terms and above all where employment is concerned.
"Looking at the situation of the Catholic Church in Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is reason to be seriously concerned for the future. If there were no more Croats left there, then there would also be no more Catholics, since most of the Croats are Catholics. For this reason also it is important to create a situation of equal rights."
The cardinal said despite the mass emigration of Catholics and insecurity among those who remain, the Church is trying to give believers confidence and hope.
Speaking about the Church's support for the faithful, he told ACN: "We draw hope and strength from communal and personal prayer. The Sunday Mass and our pilgrimages are an important source of strength, and this year we marked the centenary of the Fatima apparitions by consecrating every parish and the entire archdiocese to the Mother of God. It is a matter of healing wounds, by forgiving one another and entrusting ourselves with joy to the love of God."
Over the last decade, ACN has helped Vrhbosna Archdiocese to rebuild churches and other religious buildings destroyed or damaged during the war, including the renovation of Sarajevo's major seminary.
Read more about Aid to the Church in Need: www.acnuk.org