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The Other Bosniaks

After 700 years, can anything survive of the Catholics in Bosnia but fragments and memories?

Bosanski hrvati, esey o agoniji jedne evropsko-orijentalne mikrokulture (Bosnian Croats: An Essay on the Agony of a European-Oriental Microculture), by Ivan Lovrenovic. Zagreb, Durieux, 2002

Vjerni Bogu, vjerni Bosni (Faithful to God, Faithful to Bosnia), by Petar Andjelovic. Sarajevo, Rabic, 2000

Mi ostajemo (We Will Remain), by Petar Andjelovic. Zagreb, AGM, 1995

by Mirna Solic

Who are the Bosnian Franciscans, “fellow-travelers of Bosnian history” as historian Julijan Jelenic referred to them in his 1912 study of the order, and why do both Ivan Lovrenovic and Petar Andjelovic see them as playing a crucial part in the survival of Bosnian Catholics living beyond the “bulwark of Christianity”?

That “bulwark” on the religious-political map of Europe--the antemurale christianitatis--dates at least to the 16th century, a token of Croatia’s key geopolitical position as a defense against the westward expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The slogan was revived by former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and those around him. Used to prop up a supposed historical hatred toward everything “Eastern,” “other,” and “Balkan,” this local variant of Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis contributed to renewed calls for the political unification of Catholic Bosnian Croats with Croatia, Croatian involvement in aggression in Bosnia, and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Croats.

Intellectual-theological circles close to the Catholic church in Croatia at times voiced similar views. Politicization of religion in turn fed a “clericalization” of the state, granting Catholicism a privileged place in all spheres of public life.

Other Croatian and Bosnian intellectuals, journalists, and theologians take a critical stance toward such meddling in ideology. Their erudition and understanding of Bosnia’s complex history inform their work on the intellectual and emotional experience of war and tragedy in the life of the Bosnian Croats. A call for return to the “everyday Catholicism of reconciliation” sounds in the work of Luka Markesic, Bono Sagi, Branko Sbutega, Ivo Markovic, Drago Pilsel, and others who stand for cultural links and the preservation of cultural differences rather than political unification of Catholics under a banner of Croatian national sentiment.

The work of Lovrenovic and Andjelovic is key to an understanding of cultural and historical differences between the so-called Bosnian Croats and the Croats of Croatia proper.

Lovrenovic, a Bosnian ethnologist, historian, and magazine editor, writes extensively on Bosnian cultural history, literature, and the contemporary political situation. Andjelovic studied philosophy and theology in Bosnia and journalism in Germany. He was the head of the Bosnian Franciscan Province from 1991 to 2000. Both writers see the exodus of Croats out of Bosnia as a response to ideologically inspired “pan-Croatism” and the negation of a specific, historically based Bosnian identity, an identity linked to the activities of the Franciscan order in Bosnia and Herzegovina over many centuries.


After coming to Bosnia in 1291, the Franciscans’ efforts were rewarded with the establishment of a vicariate in 1340 and eventually a full “province,” Bosna Argentina (popularly known as Bosna Srebrena after Srebrenica, the first permanent Franciscan settlement). The province grew to encompass territory from the Adriatic to modern Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, thus helping preserve the memory of the medieval Bosnian kingdom during the time of the Ottoman Empire.

The Dominicans, too, were preachers, poor (in theory) monks who moved among the people. The Franciscans, though, more open to the traditions, culture, and language of indigenous people, took root in Bosnia through their philosophical and diplomatic principle of secundum loca et tempora--to act according to the conditions of space and time. Under theocratic Ottoman governance--where membership in a religious community meant identity--not only were they priests and confessors, but also doctors, teachers, politicians, and diplomats. They came to be known among the people as ujaci (uncles), an affectionate term still used today.

Secundum loca et tempora, or the principle of “political humanism” in Andjelovic’s expression, secured the survival of the Bosnian Catholics under the Ottomans. After a fruitless appeal to European monarchs and the pope to help Bosnia resist Ottoman invasion, the Franciscans turned to diplomacy to avert a Catholic exodus. In 1463, when the Ottoman Empire conquered Bosnia, friar Andjeo Zvizdovic negotiated a signal concession from Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror: the Ahndama charter, by which Catholics acknowledged the sultan as their ruler in return for the freedom to practice their faith and continue their activities. The Ahndama remained more or less in force down the centuries of conflict and poverty. As late as the middle of the 19th century, a Franciscan, Ivan Frano Jukic, made another appeal to the monarch, asking Abdul-Mejid to change the status of Catholics from that of nonbelievers to “citizens and nationals of the entire Turkish empire.”

The order’s continued presence and leadership among Catholics again bore fruit when the church hierarchy was re-established following Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. From that time their political role declined, yet they remained active, especially during the world wars, when the order issued appeals against executions of Serbs and Jews, and during the decades of communist rule.

The Bosnian Croats in the history of the “sacred and accursed Bosnian triangle” (which does not exist without the Franciscans) and their destiny today have long been central to Lovrenovic’s work. (An English translation of Bosnia: A Cultural History was published in 2001.) In The Agony of a European-Oriental Microculture, he treats his countrymen’s leanings toward “pan-Croatism” as both cause of their recent misfortunes and consequence of their incapacity to hold a “realistic evaluation of their own position, possibilities, and real interests.” Were it not for their characteristic “self-ignorance” (here Lovrenovic borrows Croatian poet Tin Ujevic’s neologism, nesebeznalost), maybe the destruction of central Bosnia could have been avoided--as well as the “human displacement” of Bosnian Croats into stretches of poor, mountainous Croatian borderlands abandoned by Serbs during the war.

Lovrenovic argues that the term “Bosnian Croat” dates only to the 19th century and thus belongs among the phenomena of the modern era in Bosnia, above all the destruction of the Ottoman Empire and the great changes that it wrought in the region. While agreeing with Bosnian historian Srecko Dzaja’s thesis that Bosnia’s Catholics had for centuries felt a kinship to the Catholics of Western Europe, he believes that “Croatization” is a modern phenomenon, inseparable from the 19th-century ideology of bringing all Croats into one state, from political events following Austria’s annexation of Bosnia, and from the concept of “Catholic Croatian national sentiment” introduced by the church hierarchy. “Before the modern political use of ‘Croat’ as the name of a nation near the end of the 19th century,” Lovrenovic writes, “… Bosnian Catholics with great pride considered Bosnia alone as their country and homeland, and called themselves simply Bosniaks, as others also called them.”

Nearly 150 years of forgetting their Bosnian roots produced the “self-ignorance” of today’s Bosnian Croats--this, along with the condition of being torn between the church and the regime, whether Austrian or Yugoslav, leaving no space for a third option. This is “the accursed question” of Croatian history, Lovrenovic says. “In the whole period from the end of World War II until the beginning of the [inter-Bosnian wars of the early 1990s], only two ideological structures fought and were polarized on opposite sides: the State (equivalent to the Party and the regime) and the Church. Nothing third existed, no lay, civil, neutral formation that might have enabled distillation of bad history and absorption of the multiple traumas that the Croats faced at the end of World War II and the beginning of the new Yugoslavia.”

The way out of this duality is “to be Croat in a Bosnian way”--to adopt a Bosnian identity with its own history. In the Franciscans’ attachment to Bosnia, their love of its traditions, literature and language (which Franciscan lexicographers term Bosnian), Lovrenovic sees the “Bosnianism” of Bosnia’s Croats.

At the time of the Ahndama charter, European leaders, incapable and unwilling to help Bosnia, accused the local Franciscans of betraying Christianity. Lovrenovic launches from this observation into an “unavoidable” digression: “… not only that the pope and Christian Europe (at that time equivalent to today’s European Union, which also passively watched the destruction of Bosnia in 1992) did nothing against the Ottoman invasion, but also that a disgraceful and false myth--that ‘Bosnia fell with a whisper’--arose from their guilty consciences.”

Although he sees in Ivan Frano Jukic’s appeal, five centuries later, “the first draft of a European constitution in the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Bosnia’s future, lacking a political option other than national or religious ideology, looks bleak to Lovrenovic. The Croatian historian Ivo Banac describes his latest book as one of the most profound and important in Croatian historiography, but the author himself regards his study of the Bosnian Croats’ political failures merely as a story of “fragments and memories.”

One fragment is the destiny of the town of Varcar, inhabited before the 1992 war by Bosniaks and Croats whose “double history” vanished in a few days of Serbian destruction. The destiny of Varcar is the destiny of Bosnia itself. “That town is wiped out, that history is wiped out as well. Now a new history begins--without the Catholic church and the mosque, without chronicle writers and history. Only dull existence--dull, drunk, occasionally sounding with machine-gun bursts …”


Collected in two books--We Will Remain and Faithful to God, Faithful to Bosnia--the interviews, articles, and letters of Petar Andjelovic are testimony to the Franciscans’ activities during the last war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the community in which “three brothers died, and all are wounded.”

We were Croats in our Bosnian way. That means that the right to be Croat includes the right of the others to be Serb, Bosniak-Muslim or something else. With our Croatism, Serbism, Bosniakism … we want to have something else also: our own homeland, Bosnia and Herzegovina” (Faithful to God, Faithful to Bosnia).

Andjelovic, like Lovrenovic, reads the Ahndama as a guide to the destiny and historical presence of Catholics beyond the antemurale christianitatis. Traveling on the other side of that “bulwark,” he grew bitter at the sight of devastated and abandoned countryside, speaking with sorrow of Srebrenica, site of the worst atrocity in Europe in 50 years and which, for him, lies at the root of Bosnian history and tradition. The location of his order’s first permanent settlement in Bosnia, Srebrenica, he writes, “is our surname.”

The Franciscans’ “Bosnianism” resurfaced in reactions and appeals in the wake of the many agreements, promises, conferences, and diplomatic visits throughout the wars of the 1990s and the uneasy peace that followed. In one instance, the short-lived Owen-Stoltenberg plan of 1993 calling for a Bosnian union of three autonomous regions elicited a response from the order: “Signing the agreement would certainly lead to the displacement of Croats from places … which include two-thirds of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have abandoned these places before, but we always came back. We have never signed an agreement to displacement” (We Will Remain).

The principle of secundum loca et tempora continues to inspire the Franciscans. Shortly after the Dayton Agreement of 1995, the province met in the town of Visoko to set out a direction for the order amid new conditions. “Our basic decision is to stay in Bosnia. … No one should start building grand churches, monasteries, or vicarages before houses for the believers are reconstructed. … Since houses are not sufficient for life, friars should use their contacts and ‘relations’ to establish companies where people can earn their daily bread; in general, friars must help in the economic development of regions affected by the war” (We Will Remain). History will show whether the declaration is not an Ahndama for the end of the 20th century.

Mirna Solic is a graduate student of Slavic languages and literatures at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on Czech and South Slavic literatures.

Moving on:


Vol 4, No 4
1 November 2002


Mirna Solic
The Other Bosniaks

Srecko Latal
Bosnia: Make or Break

Stephen Humphreys
Travelers on Separate and Unequal Paths

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