The Bosnian Franciscans are different from other Franciscans
by Fra Petar Andjelovic
Petar Andjelovic,former governor of the Franciscan Province of Bosnia Argentina [Silver Bosnia], popularly known in B-H simply as Fra Petar, has recently published a book with the striking title: Devoted to God, Devoted to Bosnia. He now serves as Guardian of the Monastery of St Anthony at Bistrik in Sarajevo.
The Bosnian Franciscans Are Different from Other Franciscans
Brother Petar Andjelovic - an interview
The title of your book links love for Bosnia with love for God. Can one indeed serve good without also serving Bosnia?
My devotion and that of other Bosnian Franciscans to God and Bosnia is rooted in our hearts, where it forms a single experience that cannot be identified on a map or told as a tale. Though God cannot be expressed in geographical terms or human words, it can nevertheless be said that we who live here cannot serve God without serving Bosnia. One can understand this if we understand Bosnia as a community of people to whom we try to minister. One could go further and say that God lives amid our beautiful forests, along our beautiful rivers, in our beautiful fields; and that he may be more at home here than in mean human souls or swiftly erected churches. The title and content of my book, however, do not talk about God but about the efforts of a modest man and the Little Brothers, the Bosnian Franciscans, to serve God by serving the people, while walking through Bosnia and dreaming of its future. It is true that we could do something similar in another country, and some of us are doing that, but we are not ready to give up Bosnia: we wish to prove therein our loyalty to God.
Among the sponsors of your book one may find social democrats and atheists, agnostics and believers, even one most devout man who has been extremely active in politics during these past years - unsuccessfully in my view. Was the selection inspired by a belief in Bosnia as a community of diversity?
The selection was not accidental. The people were chosen according to a key, the key being their national, cultural and political connection with Bosnia, and my intuition that it is precisely these people who can critically reflect on my book and, more importantly, add what it has missed out. In their different ways they all know Bosnia well, they have lived it intensively during the past ten years and have fought for it, but none of them - the same is true of myself - can work out its secret. Bosnia is above us, and we all see it from a different angle. You mention the devout Mr Alija Izetbegovic. While not wishing to pass judgment on his faith and politics, I am sure that it was right to invite him to present my book. Without him and the people he represents, there would be no Bosnia; and Bosnia occupies a central place in my book. It is a another matter what impels him to be concerned with Bosnia, but I believe he is ready to explain that. These people were asked to testify to the fact that Bosnia-Herzegovina is able to exist as a political, cultural and spiritual human community.
At the presentation of your book Mr Izetbegovic stated: ‘The best works I have read about Bosnia have been written by Fra Petar.’ If my memory is correct, at some point during the war you and Mr Izetbegovic stopped understanding each other. There were angry exchanges. Do you think that, despite his compliments to you, Mr Izetbegovic has betrayed the Bosnian idea?
The Bosnian idea? What is meant by that? It may be better to speak of Bosnia’s reality, formed of many things: past and present, black and white, rational and irrational, good and bad. I have said that Bosnia is a secret, but that should not prevent us from studying it in the hope of discovering its underpinning and its deeper meaning, so that we can foresee its future. I have frequently talked to Mr Izetbegovic about this and found that we shared what I believe you mean by the Bosnian idea. It is unfortunately the case that events took place which often negated this understanding. I was in an easier position, in that I was not responsible for the people killed, the mosques destroyed and the villages torched: that was done by people who were not under my command. It was, no doubt, more difficult for Mr Izetbegovic; some people who behaved in such a manner to Croats were under his command. Maybe he knew of their crimes. The question is whether it is possible to realize the Bosnian idea by committing crimes. It is not up to me, however, to be a judge - that is a matter for the courts and for history, and in the last instance for the Supreme Lord. What I can say is that during the war I frequently saw Mr Izetbegovic in a state of despair, I would say quite unsure of himself, full of anxiety - for his people first of all, it is true, but after them for Bosnia and its other peoples. Is that not how most people felt?
Is there a true religious dialogue in Bosnia today, or do the religious institutions in their symbiosis with national parties prevent such a dialogue? Are religious communities in the service of national politics?
I am tempted to say yes, but it would be wrong to do so. While it may be true that religious institutions have been captured by national parties, which prevents an open and meaningful dialogue, I believe nevertheless that none of them has sunk so low as to become a mere instrument of their politics. It is not that they have not erred. The trouble is that religious institutions here are so closely involved with national identity that religious officials, including those at the highest levels, find it difficult to separate the religious from the national, which exposes them to political manipulation. I am concerned with the lack of inter-religious dialogue in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I feel that insofar as it exists it does not sufficiently include internationalism, towards which it ought to be turned. If meetings of religious dignitaries are intended only to show that they too are doing something for the cause of peace, then this is not enough. Such meetings ought to be concerned with finding ways of how to make believers into better believers, hence better human beings. This is more important than recounting who has done evil to whom. I have said too much, since I do not attend such meetings; but it is the view of many people that the fruits of these inter-religious dialogues are poor. We must ask ourselves why that is so.
When Cardinal Puljic went to Travnik to attend the HDZ assembly, you, Fra Luka Markesic, Fra Ivo Markovic and Fra Luka Brkovic publicly protested. Was Cardinal Puljic wrong? Should one view his failure to attend the follow-up meeting in Tuzla as an admission on his part that he should not have gone, or as proof that his visit to Travnik was part of the election campaign?
We felt at the time that he should not have gone. We knew that his presence would be misunderstood; that he would be seen as being in the service not of national politics, but of one-party politics. That is what we publicly stated. It was not in order to call the Cardinal to order, since it is up to him to decide what he does. We simply wished to tell the Bosnia-Herzegovina public that there are clergymen who have a different politics, and who are suspicious of what the meeting was all about. It turns out that we were right - its negative effects are still to be revealed. His Eminence the Cardinal should be given the opportunity to explain himself.
How did you understand the Cardinal’s statement that while the West is investing in economic infrastructure, the Islamic world is building mosques.
I have not read the Cardinal’s interview, which was given to an Italian paper. It is very likely that he has been misquoted. The Cardinal, however, has competent staff who can provide him with accurate information. That is all I wish to say, although I cannot but feel that the sentence sounds true enough. That is what many people in the West say. The people there do not go to church much nowadays, and they cannot understand why we should build churches rather than factories, schools and apartments. Maybe they are right!
I very much hope you will not avoid answering my next question: to whom do you feel spiritually closer, to Alija Izetbegovic or to Reis Mustafa Efendi Ceric?
I would gladly answer the question if only I knew what its purpose was. You would not learn from my eventual answer much about either Mr Izetbegovic or Reis Mustafa Ceric. What I can say is that we share, it would seem, belief in God and belief in Bosnia, although it is possible that each of us understand one and the other differently. That does not prevent us, however, from travelling together along parts of the road towards this supreme aim - for in my view there are many such parts.
You have been replaced in your post as governor of Bosnia Argentina by Fra Mijo Dzolan. Many eminent people are impressed by him, but nevertheless wonder whether he was the best choice. I do not wish to offend you, particularly since I know very little about Mr Dzolan, but I do not feel him to be a man of Bosnia in the way I feel that you are.
Individuals are important, but the strength of our Province does not lie in them. It lies in our community and springs from goodness, wisdom, hard work by all, including those who sit at their sewing machines and make our clothes or those who share bread among the poor who come to us. Of course, when the right time comes, we try to choose the right person to be our head. This is what we did this time by choosing Fra Mijo Dzolan. He is endowed with many virtues and no one should doubt his love for Bosnia-Herzegovina. In one of his first interviews he said: ‘I wish to make clear my position and that of the Province and the Church: Bosnia-Herzegovina is our state too, which we wish to build on the purest principles of democracy. Inspired by St Francis and the Gospel, we wish to encourage our Croat brothers not to seek for themselves rights which they are not a priori ready to share with others.’ To quote further from this interview: ‘Bosnian Franciscans believe that Bosnia is not a wilderness forgotten by God, a land of barbarism and hate; that it does not contain hell; but that God loves their country as he loves all others.’
Are you satisfied with the social status of the Franciscan order of Bosnia Argentina? Could you tell us how many of you there are, about your distribution, about the state of your monasteries?
Our community includes 292 clergymen, 8 lay brothers, 11 deacons, 9 invested candidates, and 74 pupils at our high school in Visoko. In addition to Bosnia-Herzegovina, we serve also in Croatia, Serbia, Germany, France, Italy, Albania, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, Holland and Turkey. Most of us live, of course, in Bosnia - from Bihac to Sarajevo and from Orasje to Livno. Our living conditions are largely those of our congregation. Some of our monasteries have been preserved, some we have rebuilt: the theology faculty at Nedzaric, the monastery at Petricevac in Banja Luka, the one in Guca Gora near Travnik, and some parish buildings. We have built some new houses, but only where the believers have literally been left without a church. Our rule is that we will build churches only after our congregation has gained a roof over their heads and after they have built a school for their children.
What does it mean to be a Bosnian Franciscan?
I will simplify my answer in order to be better understood. St Francis, whose name we bear, wished his adherents to follow Jesus Christ in their full devotion to God and their fellow human beings, in his concern for the poor, the sick and the abandoned, in his superhuman effort carried on until his death to ensure justice. Since this teaching is realized in different times and places, it is clear that there are also differences among us, albeit superficial in nature since otherwise the Franciscans would become too different. We can always recognize each other. As far as we Bosnian Franciscans are concerned, we gladly accept that we are not like other Franciscans. Our situation and our location have forced us to live in a different way: not always in comfortable monasteries, but in forests and private houses; not always wearing our order’s vestments, but ordinary dress, since it was not worth losing one’s head for the sake of the habit; not concerned always with prayer and theology alone, but also - at times out of sheer need - with politics or some other non-church activity. This is how things are, but it does not mean that there is anything wrong in it. Our location and time have taught us that freedom is humanity’s greatest gift, and that only with it can one survive here.
You know the very soul of Bosnia. How does post-war Bosnia differ from the one before the war? Has Bosnia irretrievably lost its identity? Do you think that Bosnian Croats and Serbs today love Croatia and Serbia respectively more than their own homeland, or that the Bosniaks love their nation better than they love our common state?
You know that a person can undergo terrible torture, including the loss of limbs, without giving up his soul. This is true also of Bosnia. It has suffered all kinds of afflictions over the centuries, yet it has survived. The same is true of the last war. They can hit it, torture it in various ways, but they cannot kill it. It is alive because it lives in its children, in their souls including the souls of those who feel themselves to be Croats and Serbs, perhaps even more strongly among them, because they have learned that they have only one motherland. You ask whether the Bosniaks love their nation better then the common state. That would be most painful and dangerous for them, if it were true. Where could they live as a nation except in Bosnia-Herzegovina? Those who wish them well can only wish them an undivided common state - without it there would be no Bosniaks.
How do you perceive the HDZ, from its inception to the present day? Of all its presidents - Perinovic, Kljuic, Boban, Brkic, Zubak, Jelavic - who in your view best represented Croat national interests? Which political party in B-H today best represents the Croat nation’s interests?
A young person can grow into a decent human being or a gangster. One can hardly be happy with the evolution of the HDZ, but it is not up to me to provide a final judgement. This should be done by the party itself, and I do not doubt that it will be, since I know many of its members who wish to see its radical renewal. It is true, however, that none of its leaders was able independently to prove his personality and ability, since each of them lived in the shadow of the neighbouring state. (One should exclude from our considerations here Mr Perinovic, who became a politician by mistake.) So far as Croat national interests are concerned, I would like to see them represented by competent Bosniaks, competent Serbs and competent Croats. This is true also for Bosniak and Serb national interests.
How do you understand the HDZ’s dislike of Croatian president Stipe Mesic, who in my view is the best thing that could have happened to the Croat nation in both Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The HDZBiH depended on the Croatian HDZ, so that the latter’s electoral defeat entailed a great loss for the former, which need not be reckoned only by numbers of votes. Mr Mesic is undoubtedly a phenomenon. He has a great quality that people recognized. To have become president after so much media abuse, persecution and excommunication really does excite one’s admiration. I cannot imagine who would be better for the Croat people in that post than Mr Mesic.
The last week of the year 2000 will witness the celebration of Christmas and Bajram, and also of the New Year which is the secular expression of joy. God and the celestial calendar are evidently against any ‘clash of civilizations’. What are we to do with clergymen who relate their mission on earth only to the satanic principle?
It is an old saying that God writes also in a skewed hand. In his mercy and love he need not rely on organized religious communities, and certainly not on religious officials who may be closer to ‘the satanic principle’ than to God’s principle of love and mercy. He does not need these institutions. It is us who need them. They do preserve his annunciation, his teaching, his commands; but the path to God can lead between them, even avoiding them, particularly when they are led by people preoccupied with conflict between civilizations, and even between nations, which is what happened to us not long ago. Their future should be decided by their congregations, which otherwise will themselves be forced to account before God.
This interview, conducted by Nerzuk Curak, has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 22 December 2000.