Yugoslavia's civil war has been presented as a religious conflict Othodox Serbs against Catholic Croats. Viewing the ruined churches of Croatia, Christopher Bennett asks if this is a true picture
MASSIVE shelling of Dubrovnik, the ancient port known as the "jewel of the Adriatic", grabbed headlines throughout the world in 1991 as Yugoslavia's civil war intensified. However, Dubrovnik's beauty and reputation as Europe's best preserved renaissance city has saved it, at least temporarily, from even greater bombardment by Yugoslavia's Serbian controlled federal army. The rest of Croatia, which does not share Dubrovnik's worldwide fame, cannot protect itself behind United Nations flags. Despite the ceasefires and talk of a peace keeping force the destruction continues unchecked.
The misery and scale of devastation in Yugoslavia receives far less attention than damage to Dubrovnik's city centre. Yet that is the reality of civil war for most Croats. Apart from the terrible Joss of human life, one of the most depressing aspects of the conflict is the fate of large numbers of Catholic churches.
According to latest figures from Croatia's Ministry of Culture, 513 cultural monuments have already been damaged. This includes 223 Catholic churches.,
Vlatko Pavletic, Minister of Culture, says: "the army is destroying everything which has been created by generations over
hundreds of years. Some monuments are 900 years old. We can always rebuild schools and hospitals which have been destroyed but culture is irreparable."
Many Croats believe the federal army is trying to wipe out their entire culture. 1 sat in an air raid shelter in Zagreb as Croatian radio reported the fifteenth century cathedral in Sibenik had been hit during heavy shelling. People around mc gasped in disbelief and an old woman cried: "Is nothing sacred?" Churches appear to have been singled out for special treatment.
The federal army claims it only shoots at churches because Croatian snipers are firing from the bell towers. There have been instances of this in eastern Croatia where the land is flat and church towers afford the best view.
However, the scale of destruction makes such a justification ridiculous. In • Petrinja, 30 miles south of Croatia's capital Zagreb, the parish priest was seriously wounded inside his church.
Precise details of the devastation are difficult to come by as much of Croatia is occupied and travel is restricted. Croatia's media claim wholesale annihilation of their culture including all churches in occupied areas. A leaked document prepared by European Community observers in Yugoslavia supports these accusations. Entire Croatian villages have been bulldozed, it reports. A religious element to the conflict clearly exists.
"The major difference between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Moslems," says Ivan Macan, 52 year old Dean of Zagreb's Jesuit College, "is their religion, and the culture which accompanies their religion. Though two houses stand one next to the other, they can be two separate worlds."
As Christendom was divided into east and west the border split today's Yugoslavia in two, making Croatia Catholic and Serbia Eastern Orthodox. When the Ottoman Empire pushed through the Balkans many Orthodox peoples fled north, giving Croatia a mixed Yugoslavia should not be. looked at outside its historical context.
He says: "most church people and Croats in general welcomed the independent state of Croatia because at last they had their own country, not because they were Ustasha (Croatian fascists).
In the kingdom of Yugoslavia Croats had been second class citizens. They were unable to call themselves Croats and the entire police was Serbian. As the Ustasha regime committed excesses it lost the support of the church."
Relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Croatia under Tito, himself a Croat, and communism were always uneasy. Though Serbs make up only 12 per cent of Croatia's total population, the Orthodox church held privileges not accorded to the Catholic church. Their priests drew salaries from the state and they were entitled to building grants for their churches.
By contrast, the Catholic church received no state aid and activist priests were often persecuted.
Relations between the churches disintegrated when the central committee of Croatia's League of Communists decided in December 1989 to dump communism and organise multiparty elections. Under pressure from Belgrade, whose media were already claiming Croatia's Serbs were now in mortal danger, the Orthodox church found an excuse to boycott the churches annual ecumenical Christmas gathering.
Despite friction between the churches, Dean Macan believes the desecration of churches has little to do with religion. He blames the dogmatic communist atheism of the federal army, an institution he knows well, because he had to complete two years military service.
He says: "the army was always far worse than the Communist Party because of its tunnel vision. It was hostile to all