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The Greek Catholic churches of the former Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia, the “land of the Southern Slavs,” was the fruit of an intellectual concept born in Europe in the 19th century. Members of the intelligentsia speculated that a union of the Balkans’ Southern Slavs — Catholic Croats and Slovenes, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs — would free them from the yoke of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, which had competed for control of the Balkan Peninsula for centuries.

In December 1918, after the collapse of the two empires, an uneasy union of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was achieved, and the king of Serbia was proclaimed its head. Until its dismemberment in 1991, the Yugoslav experiment proved defective, as rival groups jostled one another for supremacy.

Despite the Yugoslav collapse, its former constituents turned on one another in a bloodletting that did not abate until the new millennium. Bosniaks, Croats, Kosovar Albanians and Serbs were all complicit in mass murder, ethnic cleansing, rape and other acts of wanton violence. Today, an eerie calm presides over the Balkans — “the powder keg of Europe.”

Lost in the confusion were Yugoslav minorities — Greek Catholics, Jews and Protestants. The 58,000 Greek Catholics of Yugoslavia were particularly vulnerable; perceived by both Croat and Serb extremists as neither Catholic nor Byzantine, they included six distinct groups: Orthodox Serbs who accepted papal authority; Croats from the village of Žumberak; Rusyns who left the Carpathians in the 18th century; Macedonians who accepted papal authority; Ukrainians who left Galicia at the turn of the 20th century; and Romanians living in the Serbian province of Vojvodina.

After the Yugoslav kingdom was created in 1918, the Holy See extended the jurisdiction of the Eparchy of Križevci, (erected in 1777) to embrace all Yugoslavian Greek Catholics. Since the disintegration of the Southern Slav state, the Holy See has regrouped them into three separate jurisdictions.

Eparchy of Križevci. Based in the town of Križevci, near the Croatian capital city of Zagreb, the eparchy includes about 21,350 people living in Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and is led by Bishop Nikola Nino Kekić.

When the Ottoman Turks first invaded the Balkans in the 14th century, they smashed states that had squabbled among themselves since the Byzantine hegemony of the peninsula evaporated in the 12th century. The wars between the Ottomans and the powers of Central Europe that followed provoked a significant refugee problem. Tens of thousands of Serbs sought safety in the Military Frontier of the Hapsburg emperors. Bishops and generals, peasants and soldiers brought their icons and weapons, families and retainers. The Hapsburgs guaranteed the Serbs certain privileges, including the freedom to set up eparchies and monasteries.

In the late 16th century, the Serbs established an Orthodox monastery in the village of Stara Marča, near Zagreb, which eventually became the focus of a pro-Catholic party within the Serbian Orthodox community. In 1611, the pope appointed a bishop for them. He served as the Byzantine vicar of the Latin Catholic bishop of Zagreb and established his residence at the monastery.

This spurred controversy. Refusing to acknowledge the authority of the Latin bishop of Zagreb, Serbian monks rallied the Orthodox faithful, who turned the Catholic party out of the monastery, setting it aflame in 1739. In 1775, the monastery was liquidated by the Hapsburgs and two years later the Holy See erected a Greek Catholic eparchy, locating it in the nearby town of Križevci.

Many of the eparchy’s Rusyn Greek Catholics immigrated to the United States in the first two decades of the 20th century, settling in Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Some of those who remained eventually left their villages and settled in Zagreb, where many were absorbed into the Latin Catholic majority.

Macedonia. In 2001, the Holy See established an exarchate for Greek Catholics living in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Led by the Latin bishop of Skopje, Kiro Stojanov, it includes some 15,000 faithful.

Greek Catholics in Macedonia descend largely from families who were received into the Catholic Church in the 19th century, due to the efforts of a Bulgarian priest, Joseph Sokolsky. Ordained to the episcopate by Pope Pius IX in 1861, he was named “archbishop for Bulgarian Catholics of the Byzantine rite.” This newly independent church grew rapidly, and within a decade more than 60,000 Bulgarian Orthodox Christians opted for communion with Rome.

By the end of the century, however, three quarters of those who joined the Greek Catholic community returned to Orthodoxy. Surviving Greek Catholics lived in a few isolated villages in what is now Macedonia.

Serbia and Montenegro. In 2003, the Holy See set up an exarchate for Greek Catholics in Serbia and Montenegro. Led by Bishop Djura Džudžar, it includes about 22,500 members, most of whom are ethnic Rusyns living in the Serbian region of Vojvodina.

Though now divided, the Greek Catholics of the former Yugoslavia share the same liturgical language, Church Slavonic, and the same Byzantine rites associated with the Orthodox churches of Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s assistant secretary for communications.

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