MORE than a million folk visit Medjugorje annually, thousands of them Irish, and most come to climb the hill where six neighbors claim to have first seen and spoken to the Virgin Mary in June 1981.

It is hard to find a traveller who doesn’t speak of the peace and tranquillity of Cross Hill, location of the supposed apparitions that turned a remote and impoverished town into one of the most renowned corners of Bosnia.

Few visitors make the short journey from Medjugorje to Surmanci. It’s just a few miles from Cross Hill, but far removed from the roadhouses, restaurants and souvenir shops of its revered neighbour.

There’s deep quiet in this place, but only people who do not know its history could speak of peace and tranquillity.

In Aug 1941, local members of the fascist Croat Ustashe organisation murdered some SIX HUNDRED Serb men, girls and children in deep natural pits on this barren plateau. Ethnic cleaning could have entered the lexicon during the 1990s Balkan wars, though it was grimly familiar to a previous generation of families from this region.

In the 1940s, the craggy hills of Herzegovina saw vicious fighting between the Ustashe who ruled Croatia as a Nazi puppet state Serb patriot Chetniks and the red Partisans controlled by Josip Broz Tito, who would eventually prevail and rule Yugoslavia till his passing in 1980.

Each side committed hideous atrocities, including Tito’s Partisans, who massacred 30 Franciscan friars at Siroki Brijeg near Medjugorje, as punishment for supporting the Ustashe.

The Croat Catholic Church backed the Ustashe and its drive for an ethnically pure greater Croatia, and a couple of priests and Franciscan priests were charged with detestable war crimes.

After the war, Tito tried to neutralise the bitterness between parts of the Yugoslav population by suppressing religion and nationalism. He pictured the inter-ethnic fighting as a simple struggle between fascist Ustashe and Chetniks and anti-fascist Partisans ; the second had won, fascism had been routed and so the roots of conflict had been removed.

In places like Medjugorje, though, the wounds never actually healed. Croats felt humiliated at being forced to build a monument to the Ustashe’s Serb victims at Surmanci, while official Yugoslav history pictured the Franciscans executed by Partisans at Siroki Brijeg as fascist villains.

The apparitions began at a difficult time for Yugoslavia : the stabilising force that was Tito had died the previous year and the Catholic Fellowship movement was roiling red Poland, provoked by a new east European pope, John Paul II.

The Yugoslav authorities straight away denounced reports of the visions which occurred just before the fortieth anniversary of the Surmanci massacre as a “clerical-nationalist” conspiracy roughed up by Croat extremists.

Local Franciscans quickly took control of the Medjugorje phenomenon, declaring the children’s visions to be real and installing themselves as intercessors between the young “seers” and a Croat public that was clamouring for spiritual experience after a number of years of official state atheism.

Legions of people were soon gathering in Medjugorje for daily “messages” from Our Lady ; the authorities arrested a local friar and others whom they suspected of inclusion in the alleged hoax. Over the course of time but the cash- strapped Yugoslav authorities realized the commercial potential of Medjugorje.

By the mid-1980s, Belgrade had no difficulty with the daily visions or visitors but the Catholic Church did.

The Bishop of Mostar, the senior church official in the area, has for dozens of years been at loggerheads with the Franciscans over their refusal to relinquish control of certain parishes in Herzegovina, where they have been present for hundreds of years and luxuriate in the deep fidelity of local people.

This dispute was already raging when the visions started ; a few of the people think the Franciscans used them or helped invent them to protect and enhance their position in Medjugorje.

Unlike those at Fatima and Lourdes, the Vatican hasn’t recognized the validity of the Medjugorje visions. In 2009 it defrocked a previous Franciscan “spiritual director” to the idealists amid allegations that he exaggerated the apparitions and fathered a child with a nun.

Several other “disobedient” Franciscans have been expelled from the parish.

Like his predecessor Pavao Zanic, the Bishop of Mostar Ratko Peric is intensely suspicious about the “visions” and the way that the Franciscans and other groups have behaved in Medjugorje. Their striking comments on the phenomenon which suggest it is simply a rewarding hoax are posted in English on the diocese website (

Nonetheless the Franciscans of Herzegovina won’t give up Medjugorje without fighting. They’re troublesome and stalwart, as everybody from the Ottomans to Bishop Peric has found. In the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, Peric was abducted and beaten by Croat militiamen in a local Franciscan chapel, until UN troops and the mayor of Mostar secured his release.

The war released another wave of ethnic cleansing in Herzegovina, much of it by members of the region’s Croat majority, who flattened mosques and Orthodox churches as they drove Muslims and Serbs from their homes.

The commemorative at Surmanci was blown up by Croats, many of whom delighted in their Ustashe heritage.

A drip of pilgrims kept coming to Medjugorje across the war. Few maybe realized that atrocities were taking place nearby, or that their Queen of Peace had been dubbed the “Ustasha Virgin” by Serbs and Muslims who saw her as symbolic of Croatian ultra-nationalism.

Medjugorje last week marked 30 years since the apparitions started and the crowds are as huge than previously.

The Vatican is now investigating the apparitions and the many thousands of supposedly divine messages that have made Medjugorje’s name.

For the church, the Franciscans, the people of Medjugorje and the idealists as well as millions of believers a good deal rests on its call,writes

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