War in Bosnia moves to church Strife: Franciscan monks and the Vatican are on opposite sides of a dispute that could oust the order from the war-torn region. At stake is more than religion.


CAPLJINA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Ask Tomislav Pervan how he enjoys his job and he refers to his work manual, the Bible. "Christ said, 'Blessed are the peacemakers,' " he grins ruefully. "I hope he still thinks that when I eventually meet him, because no one else around here seems to agree."

As the head of the Franciscan order of monks in western Herzegovina -- an area of Bosnia that saw some of the worst "ethnic cleansing" of the Yugoslav conflict -- Pervan knows more about the horrors of war than most.

This time, though, it's a different kind of civil strife that worries him. Three years after the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian war, a dispute between the Franciscans and the papacy -- rife, some say, with undertones of greed and petty politics -- is threatening the order's continued presence in the region.

The friars are refusing to give up control of parishes in western Herzegovina, home to Bosnia's largest Roman Catholic community. Instead, they are continuing to minister to their flocks in defiance of the Vatican. "All we want is to preserve our traditional role in this country," says Pervan. "But Rome just won't see it our way."

The brown-robed Franciscans, a missionary order, came to Bosnia 700 years ago, when it was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. The Vatican argues that since western Herzegovina is now almost exclusively Catholic -- thanks mainly to wartime ethnic cleansing -- their presence here is no longer required.

"They should remember that they are instruments of the Lord," insists Zeljko Majic, an attendant of the bishop of Mostar, whose diocese encompasses the whole of Herzegovina. "Their task here is ended. They are preaching to the converted. They should just go."

The struggle was precipitated 18 months ago, when authorities in the Vatican ordered Franciscans in the town of Capljina, 40 miles south of Sarajevo, to surrender their Church of St. Francis to local diocesan priests. In response, supporters of the Franciscans blocked the doorway with concrete blocks and posted banners in four languages warning the bishop's men to stay away.

Parishioners continued to enter the church via a constantly guarded side door to attend weddings, make confessions and attend Masses conducted by the monks.

"During the war, the fathers stayed and helped us," remembers 18-year-old Daniela Rebac, who studies at the Franciscan-run high school next to the church. "They buried the bodies and gave food to those who had nothing. Even if they agreed to go, we wouldn't let them."

It could be, though, the quarrel isn't really about religious administration at all, but about money -- and the power that money brings.

Capljina is only 10 miles from the town of Medugorje, where in 1981 a group of local children reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary. Since then, some 20 million free-spending pilgrims have transformed the tiny cluster of rough stone cottages into one long neon strip of souvenir shops, restaurants and guest houses.

"This is a profitable place," acknowledges Slavko Barbaric, a Franciscan who has ministered in Medugorje for 15 years. "And of course we, too, sell our souvenirs and our rosaries and so on. But that hasn't made us millionaires, and it hasn't distracted us from our real mission."

Nevertheless, Rome has commanded the Franciscans to stop promoting Medugorje as a pilgrimage site. By tradition, the church does not recognize miracles until they have ceased and an official investigation is mounted. However, two of the six visionaries say they still regularly receive visits from the Virgin -- at 10 a.m. the first Sunday of every month, after which each fresh message is typed and posted around town for the faithful to read.

Local people maintain that if the apparitions had ceased, the church would still refuse to accept their validity. "When the children first began seeing the Madonna, they were taken to Mostar and interrogated for days and nights without sleep," recalls Barbaric bitterly. "They were treated like criminals instead of the recipients of divine grace. Even today, the bishop does not accept their story."

The cash-strapped Bishop Zanic, who can't afford to rebuild his war-damaged palace, is equally suspicious of the latest lucrative offshoot of Medugorje mania. Last January, two young shepherds fooling around in an abandoned house in the neighboring hamlet of Grab reported another vision, this time of Christ himself.

"We heard some noise and a little cloud of fog appeared," reports Ivan Grbavac, a tow-headed 9-year-old. "On the shutter on the window, we saw a head."

When they began screaming, Ivan's mother, Desanka, came out to see what was going on. "It was his face on the window -- Jesus Christ -- and I crossed myself," she recalls in awe-struck tones.

Not much of a vision, skeptics say, to draw multitudes. But the chemistry of shrines is mysterious. There are thousands of visions of God, the Virgin and Christ or his saints each year -- but only some gain the critical momentum in terms of visitors and miracles to develop into working shrines.

For Grab, the omens are good. The initial trickle of pilgrims -- most of them on day trips from Medugorje -- has grown to thousands. Some of those standing around the ruined house -- now bedecked in messages, candles and pictures of Christ -- have reported visions of their own. If Grab does take off, this barren portion of Bosnian Croat land will have established itself as the apparition center of Europe.

And that would be a slap in the face to not just the mainstream Catholic Church, but to all those struggling to bury old hatreds in Bosnia. Herzegovina is known for its harsh landscape and even harsher politics.

During the war, Grab, Medugorje and Capljina lay in the heartland of the Ustashe, the violent fascists who ruled a greater Croatia under Hitler's patronage. Rome has had to tread carefully because of the Franciscans' strong ties with wealthy emigres and the Croat Nationalist Party, which controls the region. Politicians from Croatia and Herzegovina regularly come to pray in Medugorje, where their pictures hang alongside images of the Virgin Mary in many shops and homes.

The politicization of Medugorje and Grab is exacerbating the growing ethnic problems in western Herzegovina, where local Muslims returning to their prewar homes have been denied entry or forcibly evicted by Croat nationalists.

Many local people who fought a 10-month war against the Muslims in 1993-1994 refused to travel to Sarajevo last Easter to hear the pope urge reconciliation with their foes in a city that now has a Muslim majority. And when John Paul II preached in the nearby Croatian port of Split this summer, Barbaric and his colleagues pointedly stayed at home after the pontiff declined an invitation to come and see Medugorje for himself.

Now it seems John Paul's patience has run out. After exhaustive rounds of talks at the Vatican, the Franciscans have been threatened with excommunication if they don't give up their parishes. Faced with this threat to their immortal souls, Pervan says, his brothers have no choice but to submit: "What can we do? He is God's deputy. To oppose him is to oppose God."

Back in Capljina, the rebel parishioners are determined to stand firm. "The Holy Father is old, he is sick," the 18-year-old Rebac points out. Some day soon, she believes, a new pope may see things differently. In the meantime, she reckons, a few more illicit Hail Marys are neither here nor there.

Pub Date: 12/11/98

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