The president of Croatia’s Bishops’ Conference has urged forgiveness and reconciliation during a Mass at Bleiburg in Austria to commemorate thousands of civilians and demobilised soldiers who were massacred after being forcibly handed over to communist forces by British officials in 1945.
“Bleiburg is a metaphor for the torture, persecution and death of vast multitudes of our compatriots,” said Archbishop Zelimir Puljic of Zadar.
“But the times we live in require new people - creators of a new world, a new and different Croatia and Europe. This depends on engaged Christians who hope, believe and love, and who are permeated by the Gospel spirit.”
Preaching to 15,000 Croats at last Saturday’s Mass, attended by government and parliamentary representatives, Archbishop Puljic said the “collective suffering” inflicted by Partisans under Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito had been “concealed, defended or minimised” during four subsequent decades of communist rule. However, he added that it was right for the Church to mourn the victims and encourage Croats to view their fate “through eyes of faith and caution, hope and trust”.
Former supporters of Croatia’s Nazi-aligned wartime regime fled to Austria with their families and Croatian Army remnants in early 1945 to escape Tito’s advancing Partisans, but were forcibly handed back, with Slovene and Montenegrin refugees, by British officials, who only stopped the repatriations on 31 May after reports of atrocities. At least 70,000 men, women and children were killed in executions and forced marches and dumped in more than 1,700 mass graves, which are still being excavated. Some historians say the number of dead was much higher.
Politicians in Austria and other countries have called for the annual Bleiburg commemoration to be banned, citing its alleged link with far-right groups in Croatia, while Austria’s Bishops Conference warned the Croatian Church in early May not to allow it to be politicised.
PICTURE: The Bleiburg Commemoration is pictured in 2017 ©PA