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Keeping Faith in a Better Tomorrow

Bosnia. Five Who Fought Back: The Priest. Last In A Series

October 08, 1998|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Whether he's fretting over a soup kitchen for the poor, hosting visitors from the Vatican or sharing drinks with Muslim friends, Father Stipan Radic exudes optimism.

Throughout Bosnia's 3 1/2-year war, Radic, 45, was the chief Roman Catholic priest in Zenica, even as war raged between Muslims and Croats and this city in the center of the country became headquarters for fundamentalist Islamic fighters.

While many religious leaders either fled the war or encouraged it, Radic stayed behind and fought to preserve a Catholic community in unfriendly territory--an affront to every hard-liner in this divided country.

Against all odds, it is a mission he continues to pursue.

With visits to young families, in counseling sessions for other priests and from the pulpit, he is encouraging Croats to live among Muslims and attempting to staunch a steady, debilitating postwar exodus by people who have given up on Bosnia's future.

"At this moment, it is very difficult to motivate people to stay, especially those who cannot think of their long-term future," Radic said. "But things are getting better and will continue to improve. The pessimists kept saying there was no chance of a life here, that people wouldn't be able to travel, that we would live with checkpoints and barricades and 50-German-mark [$30] salaries for years to come. And just look. Some changes are happening more quickly than even I expected."

Radic is widely praised as a gifted conciliator who, wearing the brown cassock characteristic of the Franciscan order, regularly ventured across battle lines during the war to identify bodies, block looting by soldiers and rescue the detained.

His determination earned him enemies among radical Muslims, whom he publicly accused of intimidation and torture, and within the leadership of his own Bosnian Croat community, which he believes misled and manipulated its people.

And perhaps most delicately, he resisted and challenged the more vocal, extremist wing of the Franciscans.

The Franciscans surrounding Radic were part of a 700-year-old tradition of friars who were tolerant and tolerated in this region. But right-wing Franciscan priests from the country's western Herzegovina region were a different breed, thriving in a bastion of close-minded separatism that would prefer to join neighboring Croatia.

Radic's belief that Muslims and Croats, as well as Serbs, who are less numerous in the area, should and could live together offended the friars of Herzegovina. They branded him a Muslim lover, calling him "Friar Suljo," the local equivalent of an Uncle Tom.

Understanding Amid a Hail of Vituperation

A self-effacing Bosnian native who does not like to talk about himself and who looks sad even when he smiles, Radic turns the other cheek when reminded of such insults.

"My colleagues were not evil or mean, just misinformed," he says magnanimously.

With the collapse of atheistic communism in the former Yugoslav federation in the 1980s, religion emerged as an alternative system of beliefs that politicians seized upon and perverted. Because almost all the people of what had been Yugoslavia--Serbs, Croats and Muslims--spoke the same language, were of the same Slavic heritage and shared many of the same customs, religion was the only difference that those who wanted to divide the country could use and distort.

Religion became entwined with nationalist politics, and clerics from many faiths became instruments of war and apologists for xenophobic violence. They advocated revenge, not reconciliation; force, not forgiveness.

The exceptions, like Radic, are today faced with recovering their religions' credibility. A multidenominational council for Bosnia has been formed, with Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Jews, but even issuing an initial statement took it months of negotiation. The damage to faith and those who pastor it may be too great for true reconciliation to occur.

"We in the Catholic Church remember the Crusades," Radic said. "You get attached to politics, you pay dearly."

A Gathering Point for Islamic Radicals

Bosnia-Herzegovina came under attack from Serbian forces in April 1992. The following year, Croatian extremists turned on the Muslims in a 10-month sidebar war that claimed thousands of lives until U.S.-led negotiations formed a tenuous Muslim-Croat alliance that now comprises half of Bosnia.

But in 1993, Zenica, in the heart of Muslim Bosnia, was besieged by both Serbs and Croats. Crowding into the city were thousands of Muslim refugees fleeing a vicious Croatian "cleansing" of Muslim villages to the west.

As the Muslims began to fight back, Zenica became the focal point of radicalized Islamic forces consisting of Bosnian soldiers and of moujahedeen, or holy warriors, from Iran and other countries.

Radic refused to be intimidated, recalled Besim Spahic, a Muslim who served as the mayor of Zenica during the war.

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