Austrian Church Bans Mass at Bleiburg Commemoration

An Austrian diocese banned a Catholic mass near the town of Bleiburg during annual commemorations of the killing of Croatian Nazi collaboration troops and civilians captured at the end of WWII, saying the event is being used for nationalist purposes.

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An event commemorating the 70-year anniversary of the massacre in Bleiburg, May 2015. Photo: EPA/OSKAR HOEHER.

The Catholic Church in Carinthia in Austria on Friday rejected a request from the Croatian Bishops’ Conference to hold an annual mass at Loibacher field near Bleiburg in May because it said the event is being used to promote nationalist ideas.

“The mass in the field near Bleiburg 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,” said a letter signed by Engelbert Guggenberger, interim administrator of the Diocese of Gurk-Klagenfurt, explaining the decision.

The letter also said that the event undermines the Catholic Church’s reputation.

Symbols of the WWII fascist Ustasa movement have often been seen at the annual Croatian right-wing gathering in Bleiburg, which commemorates the tens of thousands of Nazi-allied Croatian troops and civilians killed by Yugoslav Partisans in 1945.

At the Bleiburg commemoration in 2018, Austrian police arrested seven people and filed nine complaints about violations of the country’s law against praising fascism.

“As every year, the Croatian bishops’ conference has to ask for permission to hold worship at Bleiburg. Unlike the previous years the current interim bishop Guggenberger… did not allow the worship to happen,” Austrian anti-nationalist organisation AK Pliberk/Bleiburg told BIRN.

“He argues that the last year’s terms [for holding a mass at the event], such as no nationalistic propaganda, formulated by the diocese of Carinthia, were not met by the organisers of the gathering in Bleiburg last year and that the gathering harms the reputation of the diocese,” AK Pliberk/Bleiburg added.

In May 2016, the Croatian parliament decided to reintroduce state sponsorship of the Bleiburg event after it was withdrawn in 2012 due to concerns that it served to rehabilitate the ideology of the Ustasa regime.

Earlier this year, Austrian Interior Ministry banned the display of two Croatian Ustasa movement symbols – the letter ‘U’ with a grenade, and the checkerboard coat of arms of the Nazi-backed WWII-era Independent State of Croatia.

The ban came into force on March 1, and the fines for violating it will be up to 4,000 euros, or 10,000 euros for repeat offenders, Austrian media have reported.

The list of banned symbols also includes those of Hamas, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Turkish ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves organisation. It expands an existing ban on the use of al-Qaida and ISIS symbols.

Anja Vladisavljevic

This article is also available in: Shqip Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

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