Dr. Franjo Perko, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Belgrade, is also the Metropolitan (or head) of all Catholics residing within Serbia. Bill Yoder spoke with the Archbishop in Belgrade on February 21, 1994.
1. Is it fair to say that Catholics in Banja Luka, in Serb-held Bosnia, are being persecuted?
Yes, but it's covert. There's a similar situation here in Belgrade. There is no official persecution, it's just that the total atmosphere is anti-Catholic and anti-Croatian. We have no official bones of contention with the government, just as in Banja Luka. But everyone is essentially against us; the plan for ethnic cleansing is proceeding.
2. Can you not place pressure on the Serb Bosnian government from here in Belgrade?
No, as I said, this all happens covertly. The government and the Orthodox church maintain that relations with the Catholics are correct and proper. [The Orthodox] Patriarch Pavle has condemned the destruction of churches and mosques.
3. But isn't the Patriarch also truly against the destruction of places of worship?
The patriarch is against the destruction of churches and mosques, but the Serbian church also supports the Serbian national plan. The plan for the creation of a Greater Serbia is the root cause of this war and everything else that has occurred.
Serbs argue that Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia have the right to self-determination. But this is only possible in cooperation with others who also live there! Not only Serbs can demand this right. The right to self-determination must apply to all nationalities! The Serbs have nevertheless attempted to resolve the issue through ethnic cleansing.
4. How do you judge the Orthodox church's refusal to accept a visit to Serbia by Pope John Paul II?
I was not surprised by this veto. Actually, they didn't say "no", but only "not now." The major Orthodox synod [the Sabor] does not convene until May. I know the Pope would like very much to visit Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Zagreb.
The Pope wants to foster peace in Bosnia and Croatia. But of course other interpretations abound here: One states that the Pope wants to dig a tunnel beneath Serbia and the Orthodox. It is therefore hard to imagine that the Orthodox church would ever agree to such a visit. I desire such a visit very much, but I also fear it, because people are vehemently opposed to Catholicism and the Pope.
A book was just published in Belgrade with government blessing. It's entitled: "The Vatican's Tunnels." [Perko laughs uproariously.] Everyone speaks of a Vatican-centered conspiracy. I believe no peace will come until this atmosphere changes, and there are no signs of that yet.
4. Have you said that three-fourths of the Catholics in northern Serbia (Vojvodina) have already left the country?
No, that refers only to the Belgrade diocese. When I came here seven years ago, there were 30,000 Catholics here. We now have 7-8,000. There were no native Catholics in this diocese, they were all immigrants from elsewhere. When the tensions set in, they fled quickly. But the Catholics in Vojvodina, most of whom are ethnic Hungarians, have been living there for centuries. Most of those who left Vojvodina were young men wanting to escape the draft. These included Croats and Hungarians, but also many Serbs.
5. How serious is the pressure on Catholics living in Vojvodina?
There are few problems specific to our pastoral work. The registration of baptisms can be difficult, and the association of Catholic priests has been faced with bureaucratic hindrances. But one cannot claim that the religious rights of minorities are seriously jeopardized.
Matters are much more complicated in Kosovo where a large segment of the Albanian population is Catholic. Literature shipments and the construction of new churches are highly problematic. It's apparently a game for the authorities: The local government says "no", even after the federal government has said "yes". But the local "no" ends up overriding the federal "yes".
6. I recall the attack on the church building in Pancevo near Belgrade over a year ago. Are similar incidents still occurring?
No, the incidents have been quite minor and have decreased in the past year. They've smeared Serbian symbols outside on the door of our headquarters as well as "Death to Catholics" and obscenities. But we've don't lend such incidents much weight: Young people are doing this.
7. Do you have allies in Serbia who are aiding you in your struggle? Are there no Orthodox believers who support you in your struggle for religious equality?
Well, everyone maintains that they're against the war. But what does it mean to be against this war? The Orthodox church has an interpretation very different from our own. They feel the Serbs had no alternative other than to defend themselves with war. But I believe the Serbs also possessed a [non-military] political option.
It's interesting that in war each side believes to be doing nothing more than defending itself. But if one party believes they are only defending themselves, then only the other side is required to stop. That's why this war just keeps on going.
8. Patriarch Pavle visited Banja Luka and Pale in Serb-held Bosnia last Summer. In Pale, he was present when his church presented a historic flag to General Ratko Mladic with the words: "With gratitude for your victories." Did you understand this as a strong partisan stance in favor of the Serbian cause in Bosnia?
This incident is not unusual. I have already said that the Serbian church supports the cause of Greater Serbia.
9. So you really believe that the partisan political loyalties of priests at the grass-roots level also apply to the Patriarch?
Yes, by all means. The Patriarch has simply said that we must remain humane in war; that we are not free to become criminals. The church supports the creation or defense of a Greater Serbia. Ex-Yugoslavia already was a kind of Greater Serbia.
We're after all dealing here with two sets of truths. Rest-Yugoslavia only sees itself defending the rights of Serbs and regards itself as misunderstood by the outside world. But I claim that no one is against the Serbs per se. People are only against aggressive Serbia political position, and that is something very different.
I call for a UN protectorate in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I want all three parties to disarm, the return of refugees, and a genuine tribunal for war criminals. This protectorate would need to last 10-20 years. By that time, a new generation would have arisen which could be willing to coexist. The partitioning of Bosnia would only insure a never-ending war.
Berlin, March 19, 1994
Written for “News Network International” in Washington/DC, 1,100 words
Note from January 2021: The Slovenian Franjo (or Franc) Perko (1929-2008) was the Roman-Catholic Archbishop of Belgrade from 1986 until 2001.