During a solemn mass in the Lobach field, which was the central part of commemorative events marking the 74th anniversary of the Bleiburg tragedy on Saturday, Krk Bishop Ivica Petanjek said in his sermon that Croatian people had the right to and should preserve the memory of their past and pay tribute to all the victims.
Earlier this year, the Catholic Diocese in Klagenfurt withheld permission for a mass to be led by someone of the bishop's rank, which was why the mass was conducted by priest Fabijan Svalina, the head of the Croatian Caritas organisation, while the sermon was delivered by the bishop of Krk, who was interrupted by rounds of applause on a few occasions.
An estimated 10,000-15,000 people gathered for this year's commemoration.
Petanjek said that the Bleiburg commemoration showed that people could not be deprived of their memories.
"Gatherings such as this one indicate that memory cannot be taken away from people, because we know very well what it means to a person who has lost someone," Petanjek said in his sermon.
"May all who hear this try to understand that they cannot destroy such gatherings because when our grandmothers and parents transmitted memories of past events to us, they were not transmitting hatred but only remembrance in the light of Christian faith. We are not here today because we hate anyone but for the sake of our loved ones, whom we pray for and commend to God’s mercy," he said.
Petanjek warned that "we are only ostensibly living in a united Europe. In recent months, we have clearly understood that we are in the European Union but the borders between us are like high mountains,” he underscored.
He also added that a lot of strength had been invested in efforts to show only one opinion about the events commemorated in Bleiburg.
It has been made possible for those who for decades did their utmost to erase our people's memories of the past events, to raise their heads again and show how huge the darkness was in their hearts, the bishop said in reference to efforts of opponents who insisted on the ban of the Bleiburg commemorations.
"I believe that among our people are many wise and reasonable individuals who are ready to open their hearts and minds to the truth and believe the truth, without waiting for the truth to come from Europe or across the ocean. Why do we expect and ask others to evaluate us, judge us and impose their truth upon us," wondered Petanjek. "How long shall we litigate among ourselves? How long will others judge us and tell us what is true? When shall we want to hear the word of truth, sit at the same table and live in fellowship as brothers and sisters?"
The Bleiburg commemoration is held in mid-May in the Loibach field near Bleiburg, in the southern Austrian region of Carinthia, in tribute to tens of thousands of Croatian civilians and soldiers of the defeated pro-Nazi Independent State of Croatia (NDH) who surrendered to allied forces there in May 1945, but were handed over by British troops to Yugoslav forces.
Some were executed on the spot, while many perished during so-called death marches back to Yugoslavia.
The commemoration marking the 74th anniversary of the Bleiburg tragedy was under a lot of public pressure in recent weeks.
Furthermore, the police stepped up control of the event this year, and after the mass, the local law enforcement authorities said that the rules were not violated during the gathering.
Senior state officials sent their envoys to the commemoration, and none of them would speak to the press after the mass.
On Thursday, Croatian Parliament Speaker Gordan Jandrokovic laid wreaths at the monument in the Loibach field, saying he came to pay tribute to all victims and dismissing what he described as attempts to politicise his act and noting that he did not come to downplay the nature of the WWII Ustasha regime.
Before visiting Bleiburg, Jandrokovic and his associates laid wreaths at monuments to people killed in the aftermath of WWII at the Dobrava cemetery near Maribor, Slovenia, and on their way back to Croatia they held a wreath-laying ceremony at Macelj, a town on the border with Slovenia.
A week before, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic lit candles and laid flowers at the memorials at Bleiburg and at Macelj and Huda Jama in Slovenia, paying her respects to those killed in May 1945.
The organiser of the commemoration, the Honorary Bleiburg Platoon, called on everyone not to display Ustasha symbols or use salutes or insignia that are banned by Croatian and Austrian law.