Thousands protested on Saturday against a Mass being held for members of the Ustasha, Croatia’s Nazi collaborators, and civilians killed after the Second World War.
The annual Mass, which is usually held in Austria, was moved to Sarajevo this year due to coronavirus restrictions in Austria. Croatian groups gather each year at the Mass, with some attendees bearing Nazi memorabilia.
Despite calls from most political parties, Jewish leaders and anti-fascist groups for the Mass to be cancelled, Sarajevo Archbishop Vinko Puljic defended the service, saying that praying for the souls of the dead did not mean approval of their actions. He also said it was right to pray for innocent civilians killed in the conflict.
“No one has the right to neglect the victims for whom we pray today,” Puljic said in his homily during the Mass. “We want that double standards in respecting the victims of hatred and massacre be stopped.”
Police sealed all roads leading to the cathedral in the run-up to the service, as thousands protested in the streets of Sarajevo. According to reports, just 20 people attended the Mass, which, like the protests, ended without incident.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center described Saturday’s Mass as a “travesty of memory and justice”, while Jewish leader Boris Kozemjakin, who took part in the protest, told AFP: “In Sarajevo, a multi-ethnic and anti-fascist city, there is no room for fascism.”
The commemoration is usually held every year in the Austrian town of Bleiburg, near the site where Croatian Nazi-allied forces, known as the Ustasha, finally capitulated to Yugoslav partisans at the very end of World War II. The battle near Bleiberg resulted in tens of thousands of deaths.
The Bleiburg commemoration has become a major gathering for European neo-Nazis and a source of tension between Austrian and Croatian bishops. The Church in Carinthia, Austria, last year rejected a request from the Croatian Bishops’ Conference to hold a Mass at the site.
The Ustasha ruled the so-called Independent State of Croatia with the backing of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the Second World War. They murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Roma and political dissidents during the war, and became notorious for their brutal methods of execution.