Criticism is raining down on the Church for its plans to hold a Mass for Nazi allies in Sarajevo, with the local Jewish community calling the initiative “utterly ridiculous”.

– Coronavirus forces move of Europe’s “largest regular neo-Nazi rally”

This Saturday May 16, the Catholic Church in Bosnia and Herzegovina is organising a commemorative service to honour Nazi-allied Ustaše troops and civilians murdered by Yugoslav Partisans at the conclusion of World War II.

For the past 24 years, the commemoration has taken place in Bleiburg in Austria, where the Ustaše – who ruled the Nazi-puppet Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during WWII, which took in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina – were killed after British forces stopped their escape from the Communists.

But this year, coronavirus travel restrictions have led organisers to plan smaller alternative events in Sarajevo and Zagreb.

The Austrian Church has also complained that the Bleiburg commemorative Mass “has become part of a manifestation that is politically instrumentalised and is part of a political-nationalistic ritual that serves a selective experience and interpretation of history”, in the words of the administrator of the local Gurk-Klagenfurt diocese, Engelbert Guggenberger.

In fact, the “political-nationalistic ritual” the Bleiburg commemoration has grown into – with thousands of people each year openly displaying racist symbols and flags – has led to it being described by the Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance as the “largest regular neo-Nazi rally” in Europe.

– Jewish community: A Mass “for criminals against the citizens of Sarajevo”

It’s just that political instrumentalisation of the Bleiburg repatriations that is now being contested in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with president of the local Jewish Community Jacob Finci calling the planned Mass in Sarajevo a “small disaster”.

“The Ustaše government during their rule of Sarajevo between 1941 and 1945 killed 10,000 Sarajevans including almost 8,000 Jews. Now to celebrate a holy mass for them as victims is something utterly ridiculous”, Finci denounced.

In a strongly-worded open letter criticising the celebration, Finci and president of the Jewish community of Sarajevo, Boris Kozemjakin, urged the Church to reconsider its support for the event.

“This Mass is for criminals against the citizens of Sarajevo”, Finci and Kozemjakin deplored.

They added that the Eucharist “commemorates the executioners of our mothers, fathers, grandfathers, our compatriots and all other innocent victims of the fascist parastate NDH”.

The Israeli embassy in Albanian capital Tirana, which is responsible too for Bosnia and Herzegovina, has also condemned the planned Mass in Sarajevo, as have the city’s mayor and the World Jewish Congress, with that last body calling the commemoration “a slap in the face of all innocent victims of the Ustaše regime”.

But Ivo Tomasevic, secretary general of the Bishops’ Conference of Bosnia and Herzegovina, told Balkan Insight last week that the Mass presided over by Archbishop of Vrhbosna Cardinal Vinko Puljić would be going ahead Saturday in Sarajevo’s Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

“I see no reason why the bishops of the Bishops’ Conference in Bosnia and Herzegovina would discuss a possible cancellation of that Holy Mass. The Church has always prayed for and will pray for the deceased and that should not bother anyone who has goodwill”, Tomasevic said.

“I sincerely pity the wishes of those who would want to return us to the time of just one opinion and a single-party system instead of distancing themselves from the crimes committed in the name of any ideology”, the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Bishops’ secretary added.

But Željko Komšić, the Croat member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, told Cardinal Puljić his prayers would be better employed if he were to remember the innocent victims of war criminals.

“Let him remember the crimes of the Black Legion of Jure Francetic, the crimes of Max Luburic in Sarajevo, and pray for the souls of thousands of innocent civilians, including children, killed in the most brutal way [at Ustasa concentration camps] in Jasenovac and Donja Gradina [in Croatia], and to accept in himself that those for whom he wants to pray at the Sarajevo Cathedral, have committed such crimes that even their Nazi masters were terrified of”, insisted Komšić.

More stories on Novena on the Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.