ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Where do we go from here?

Yugoslavia and its exhausted people continue the struggle to find middle ground.

Inclining her head to my ear, my friend whispered, “I hope there are no ‘old Croatians’ around, I don’t want to lose my store.” She looked at her customers, but then pride strengthened her resolve.

“I am Croatian by territory, but a Yugoslav by birth.” Her hands waved about, her comments were now clearly audible. “I live in America now, I live in the modern world. I don’t want a monarchy – I don’t want old Croatia.”

The Balkans are back. The beginning of the 20th century witnessed no less than three Balkan wars, the sparks that ignited World War I, and plenty of assassinations and attempted coups. Not until communists ruthlessly consolidated their power in the late 40s did the Balkans stabilize. Now, after more than 40 years of the pax communista, conventional Balkan politics are bouncing back.

The Yugoslavian dilemma is a microcosm of contemporary Balkan problems. With the demise of communism, rising unemployment and a lagging economy, Yugoslavs of all ethnic backgrounds – there are at least 17 distinct groups – sustain themselves with passionate ethnocentric dreams. Recently these ambitions have become reprisals for twisted alliances and feuds dating back a thousand years; controversies once suppressed by communism. These contentions are by no means limited to the old country – hence, my friend’s concern for her store.

Such ethnic entanglements have rendered Yugoslavia helpless and her government’s attempts to thwart impending economic and political collapse, useless. Thus, the concept of a Southern Slav state – that romantic notion of uniting Croats, Serbs and Slovenes under one banner – may prove the critics right; Yugoslavia’s 1918 creation was the “greatest historical mistake of the 20th century.”

The conflicts dividing Yugoslavia reflect the permanence of ancient Roman, Byzantine, Turkish and European traditions. East meets West but never mingles in this land of contrasts. Though the minarets of mosques co-exist with the domes and spires of Orthodox and Catholic churches, those who use them do not. Yugoslavia’s diverse society is a highly segregated one.

Christianity and Islam historically played leading roles in these developments. As empires conquered and were conquered, religion became the principal form of self-identification. Religion bolstered pride, preserved tradition and gave hope. Now, as the flames of nationalism burn, the abuse of religion provides some of the fuel.

Christianity first arrived in this former Roman province as early as the second century after Christ. The Croat tribes accepted Christianity in its western form in the seventh century. Mass conversions in the south took place in the ninth century through the missionary endeavors of SS. Cyril and Methodios. Commissioned by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople to evangelize the Slavs, these blood brothers translated the liturgy and the gospels into the language of the people, creating the Cyrillic alphabet.

The pope also claimed this territory as part of his jurisdiction. Since the church of Rome used Latin in its liturgy and rites, Cyril’s use of vernacular prompted the pope to protest to the patriarch of Constantinople, thus compounding the already strained relationship between the two churches.

These disputes over matters of authority culminated in the Great Schism of 1054, which de facto separated the two churches. The separation particularly affected the Southern Slavs, dividing them along cultural, religious and linguistic lines; though they speak the same language, different alphabets are used; the Orthodox use Cyrillic, the Catholics, Latin.

Under German and Hungarian influences, the Croats and Slovenes pledged loyalty to the pope. While the Croat king strengthened ties to Rome by severing those with Constantinople, his kingdom lost its independence and was absorbed by the more powerful Hungarian monarchy.

In the 15th century, Croatia’s Dalmatian coast was sold to the Venetian Republic as war booty. Dalmatia nevertheless prospered. Large Renaissance cathedrals, palaces and piazzas were designed and built by the leading architects of the day. Cities like Dubrovnik with its splendid piazza and Church of St. Blaise, the town’s patron saint, were built according to Renaissance precepts: balance, beauty, form and quality. Sculpted images of the lion of St. Mark, the omnipresent symbol of Venice, dot the streets of Dalmatian towns; a reminder of the region’s Venetian past.

While the Croats and Slovenes strengthened their ties to and later participated in the Western cultural and political arena, the Orthodox Serbs developed an empire and church based on the Byzantine model.

In the early 13th century, Stephen Nemanja, the grand ruler of Serbia, and his younger brother Sava, an Orthodox monk, successfully established an independent Serbian empire and church.

The Serbian Nemanja dynasty, which alternately fought the Bulgars, Byzantines, Hungarians and Turks, established monasteries, cathedrals and convents throughout the empire. Embellished with frescoes, icons and ornate carvings, these Byzantine-inspired monuments rivaled those constructed by the Byzantines themselves.

Yet these shrines are not mere Byzantine replicas. The frescoed saints are characteristically Slavic, their features less formalized than their Byzantine prototypes. The scenes taken from the lives of Christ and the saints, though similar to the Byzantine in composition, are more sympathetic, less hierarchical.

Farther south, near Lake Ohrid in Macedonia (the homeland of Alexander the Great), several monasteries and churches, built between the 11th and 14th centuries, stand in sight of the Albanian frontier. Although the iconography is strictly Orthodox, one can discern non-Byzantine influences; the bodies of the saints are full, less ethereal, the faces well modeled. Like their Serbian counterparts, these ecclesiastical edifices are not mere copies of Byzantine originals, but are important contributions to the history of art.

The prestige of the Serbian empire came to an abrupt end. By the late 14th century the Ottoman Turkish army, empowered by religious zeal, destroyed Serbia, reducing it to a vassal state. The memory of the fatal Battle of Kosovo (1389), commands a dominant hold on the Serbian national conscience.

Despite the Turkish invasion, the majority of the population remained Christian. In the former Serbian province of Bosnia, however, the nobility and the educated classes converted en masse to Islam. These Bosnian Muslims, ethnic Croats and Serbs, became the bureaucratic class of the Ottoman Empire and, at home, objects of resentment.

As the Turks subdued the Southern Slavs, exacted taxes, white-washed frescoed churches and built mosques, the Christian population, Catholic and Orthodox, migrated. Those few Croats who lost land fled to the Croatian lands under Hungarian or Venetian control. The Serbs fled north, but most escaped to Montenegro, “Black Mountain” in Serbo-Croatian. Until the creation of the Yugoslav kingdom in 1918, Montenegro flourished as an independent Orthodox state, its prince a bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Throughout the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman occupation of these Southern Slavic lands, the Catholic and Serbian Orthodox Churches espoused the rebirth of a unified Southern Slav state. Though both churches (especially the Orthodox Church) supported this goal, it was subject to many different interpretations – hence Yugoslavia’s current conflicts.

After the fall of the empire, the Serbian Orthodox Church replaced the monarchy as the defender of Serbian civilization. The church perpetuated the dream of a reborn “Greater Serbia.” Yet a revival of Greater Serbia, which would roughly correspond to the modern boundaries of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Vojvodina, would not encompass ethnic Serbians alone.

The province of Kosovo, the seat of the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate and the site of the Battle of Kosovo – in effect the historical heart of Serbia – is now more than 90 percent Albanian Muslim. Serbs make up only ten percent of the population.

In 1989, violence ripped through the province when Serbia’s communist government annexed Kosovo after its Albanian majority demanded independence from Yugoslavia. Kosovo’s legislative assembly was also abolished. Serbian nationalists, threatened by the loss of their historical homeland, have increased their efforts to reintegrate Kosovo with Serbia.

Wary of these Serbian actions, the more democratic governments in Croatia and Slovenia have demanded the creation of a loosely-federated Yugoslavia based on democratic principles. This confederation of Yugoslav states conflicts with the Serbian desire for a centrally controlled government, with Serbia as the dominant power.

But power is not all that is at stake here. During World War II, the Nazis created a puppet Croatian state whose fascist government supported the slaughter of thousands of Serbs, gypsies and Jews. Thousands more were forced to convert to Catholicism. The majority of the Croatian people, however, never supported the Ustashe, the paramilitary force who carried out these massacres.

My friend, “a Croatian by territory,” remembers the Ustashe well. She recalled long nights when as a little girl the Ustashe stealthily invaded her neighborhood in search of Yugoslav resistance soldiers. Her eyes watered, she shook her head and hands and uttered sadly, “It doesn’t matter now.”

The Serbs too, remember. As do the descendants of the gypsies and Jews who died.

Where do we go from here? A cultural marvel, Yugoslavia is a historical nightmare, a testimony to intolerance. This nation, rooted in Roman, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian traditions, is a melting pot whose contents never blended. How unlike our own experience in the United States.

There appear to be no easy or speedy solutions. Hopefully, all Yugoslavians will one day heed the Croatian proverb, “a brother is a brother, of whatever creed.”

Michael J.L. La Civita is the assistant editor of Catholic Near East.

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