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Archbishop Puljić: The decision to prohibit something that is a Church matter is being “politically instrumentalized.”

Zadar (IKA)

On the occasion of the commemoration of the 74th anniversary of the Bleiburg tragedy, the President of the Croatian Conference of Bishops, Archbishop Želimir Puljić of Zadar, was interviewed by the Catholic weekly Katolički tjednik.

In view of the circumstances leading this year’s commemoration of the anniversary of the Bleiburg tragedy, which elicited various interpretations and reactions, Archbishop Puljić, who celebrated Mass on the Bleiburg Field last year, was interviewed by the Catholic weekly Katolički tjednik. The entire interview, published on May 15, can be read here.

Your Excellency, although last year’s commemoration on the Bleiburg field occurred practically without incident, a letter has been sent from the Diocese of Gurk-Klagenfurt to the Croatian Conference of Bishops, informing the Croatian bishops that they are strictly prohibited from celebrating Mass there. What, in your opinion, was actually behind such an unexpected decision?

I should not like to speculate on the motives and reasons that precipitated such a decision from the Diocese of Gurk-Klagenfurt. Since they wrote that “Mass on the field near Bleiburg has become part of a manifestation that is politically instrumentalized,” and that in the celebration “there is a lack of distance from the fascist worldview,” the Croatian Conference of Bishops immediately expressed profound disagreement with the opinion and decision by the Carinthian Church, dismissing the reasons cited for this decision in their entirety.

In this whole affair, the Diocesan Administrator, Engelbert Guggenberg, had a controversial role. Actually, his explanation was that the conditions set by the (former) Carinthian bishop, Msgr. Alois Schwarz, for issuing a permit “largely were not and could not be met.” What is your impression?

Your impression concerning the “confusion before the controversial decision” by the Diocesan Administrator, Msgr. Engelbert Guggenberg, is correct. However, I especially regret that such a decision creates a poor impression of Austria, especially Carinthia, to which we are greatly indebted for many good things, including what the Austrian people did for our people. Even today, there are tens of thousands of our countrymen working and living in Austria who are building Austria, and whose wages help feed their families in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Furthermore, we cannot and must not forget the exceptional campaign supported primarily by the people of Carinthia and later throughout Austria, Neighbor in Need (Nachbar in Not), established on May 26, 1992.  Owing to this noble campaign by the citizens and faithful of Carinthia during the Homeland War (1991‒1995),  our people who were endangered or expelled from their homes received relief aid and assistance. No one lacked the necessities or, God forbid, died from hunger.

In addition, it should be added that the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna has been a “partner diocese” of the Diocese of Gurk-Klagenfurt since 2004. Therefore, I should be very sorry if the decision on “prohibiting the commemoration” were to damage the centuries of good relations between Croats and Austrians.

Could it be said that this decision and, generally speaking, the atmosphere created in Austria regarding Bleiburg have been influenced by the political circumstances in Carinthia, where the left option dominates? On the other hand, perhaps Austria’s complex dark Nazi past could have an influence on this whole situation.

I cannot enter into the details of the reasons for the decision by the Diocesan Administrator of Klagenfurt. Although we immediately expressed our disagreement with his interpretation of this decision, we shall respect his authority.  Nevertheless, we cannot rid ourselves of the impression that a decision prohibiting something that is a Church matter, prayer for the deceased, is actually being “politically instrumentalized.” Namely, the tragically slain civilians and members of the Croatian army, whom the English army in Bleiburg disarmed and turned over to Tito’s partisans, were condemned to damnatio memoriae and their memorial was obliterated for decades. Bleiburg became a symbol and metaphor for the numerous executions and murders of our compatriots, without verdicts or convictions, classical examples of war crimes against humanity.  It was not permitted to mention this during the communist regime, much less pray to God in public. Moreover, the communist authorities had numerous mass graves “of enemy soldiers” ploughed up and paved over, thereby committing still another inhumane crime.  After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the communist dictatorship, investigations began to reveal the sites where executions took place at the end of the Second World War and public commemorations for the repose of the souls of the victims started to be held. According to the available information, approximately 1,700 mass graves have been discovered so far.

Do you think, Your Excellency, that the idea proposed by the President of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Christoph Schoenborn, to establish a commission of Croatian and Austrian historians to help the two countries come to terms with issues such as Bleiburg, is welcomed?

Cardinal Schoenborn’s idea and proposal is good and useful with regard to studying the historically unresolved issues and problems. Until twenty-five years ago, Europe was divided by the Iron Curtain into the communist block and western block of “free nations.” Such an idea could neither be discussed, let alone planned.  Under the new circumstances, new relations have been created among countries, especially within the European Union, so that unclarified issues can be approached freely and openly. From a critical distance, there is condemnation of the twentieth-century totalitarian systems that ravaged and ruled Europe, committing horrendous crimes against humanity in the name of malignant ideas and ideologies. Austria and Croatia, two friendly countries with historical ties through the centuries, could make good and positive contributions regarding the assessments of Nazism, fascism and communism, especially through joint projects concerning future work and life in the European Union.  We have a rich legacy of a “common monarchy” consisting of various nations and cultures, which could, in a sense, be considered a predecessor of today’s united Europe.