Senior Catholic clergyman to go forward with memorial mass for Nazi collaborators

Cardinal Vinko Puljić, Archbishop of Vrhbosna and Bosnia’s most senior Catholic clergyman plans to go forward with hosting a memorial service for Croatian civilians and soldiers of the Nazi-allied Ustasha forces, in spite of multiple calls to cancel the ceremony.

The Bosnian Jewish community, as well as international non-governmental organisations and Israel’s embassy to that Balkan nation are protesting the plan, titled “Mass for Bleiburg,” and to be held at Sarajevo’s Heart of Jesus Cathedral.

The event’s organisers listed fascist leaders like Maks Luburic and Jure Francetic among those to be commemorated. They also said the event is meant to commemorate all war victims. Members of the Croat pro-Nazi Ustasha militia committed some of the goriest antisemitic murders documented in World War II. Tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croats perished in the Ustasha-run death camps.

The controversial gathering of Croatia’s far-right supporters has been held annually in Bleiburg, but had to be moved to Sarajevo and the Croatian capital, Zagreb because of travel restrictions and a ban on mass gatherings during the coronavirus crisis. A parallel event is to be held at a graveyard in the Croatian capital.

For Croatian nationalists, the controversial annual event symbolises their suffering under communism in the former Yugoslavia before they fought a war for independence in the 1990s.

Jews in Bosnia and Israel’s embassy to that Balkan nation are protesting the plan.

The head of the Bosnian Jewish Community, Jakob Finci, and the head of the Jewish Community of Sarajevo, Boris Kozemjakin, expressed their deep hurt and disbelief following an announcement by the Bosnian Catholic Church that a mass will be held in memory of facists killed at Bleiburg in 1945.

“The Jews of our country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Jews of Sarajevo especially, as the descendants of the more than ten thousand Jews who were killed, of whom more than seven thousand were from Sarajevo, can not accept the fact that the city of Sarajevo, which we marked the liberation of a month ago celebrating it as the Day of Sarajevo, condemn the announced commemoration and Mass for the Ustasha (ideology) which was defeated long ago,” wrote the Jewish leaders in an open letter.

“But their husbands, fathers and other members of their families, who have committed atrocities against innocent people in the infamous concentration camps and massacres throughout our country, don’t deserve their name mentioned in Sarajevo,” they wrote.

Honoring “the genocidal Ustasha state (NDH) is not only an insult to its victims and their families, but also to all those who opposed the crimes committed by the Ustasha,” the Simon Wiesenthal Center said in a statement.

The Israeli Embassy in Tirana, Albania, wrote in a rare rebuke: “We join the call of many leaders and of the Jewish community to the catholic church to reconsider their initiative.”

Nevetheless, the Vrhbosna Archdiocese decided that the mass will go forward with only 20 people present, according to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Catholic Press Agency (KTA). The mass will be broadcasted live via a Bosnian Croatian tv channel, as well as by Croatian national television HRT.

“In order to maintain security at the said location, as well as to provide for the safe conduct of the said religious rite, the Police Directorate of the Ministry of Interior of Sarajevo Canton started planning its activities, and in accordance with the Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Transport’s decision, decided to suspend traffic (for motor vehicles and pedestrians) from 9 am until the end of the religious ceremony, on May 16,” Sarajevo Canton’s Interior Ministry said.

The commemoration of the events in Bleiburg, where back in 1945 a large number of fascists was killed by Yugoslavia partizans, has been condemned by local officials.

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