We tend to think of Croatia as a very Catholic country and one which was for centuries on the frontline of Christendom, defending its marches against the Ottoman Empire. All that is true but it is also often forgotten that before the border with Ottoman Bosnia stabilised along the frontiers that we recognise today, Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia and so on, were subject to devastating attacks and raids from Bosnia, beginning as early as 1391. During the 15th and 16th centuries large parts of what is today Croatia then fell under Ottoman control. Branka Magas is a distinguished writer and authority on the former Yugoslavia. In 2007 she published a major new account of Croatian history and it is to her that we turn for these extracts about one of the darker periods of the Croatian past.
According to one estimate, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the country lost three-quarters of its territory and over 60 per cent of its population. Around three-quarters of its towns, villages, hamlets, castles and forts were destroyed, together with over 500 churches and monasteries. Lika and Krbava, in particular, were so devastated that the Ottomans could not establish any kind of administration there for several years.
Later she writes:
The Ottoman conquest led to the effective disappearance of the previous Catholic Church organisation. Some of the churches in the main towns were turned into mosques, while those that survived generally suffered from lack of priests. As the size of the Muslim population grew, new mosques were built, so that by the end of the seventeenth century there were probably 100 mosques in Ottoman Croatia, of which two-thirds were in towns and larger settlements. With the establishment of the Orthodox bishopric of Buda in 1541, and the restoration of the Patriarchy of Pec in Kosovo in 1557, conditions were created for the establishment of an Orthodox Church administration. An Orthodox bishopric was established in Pozega, but the spiritual centre of the Orthodox population became the monastery near Orahovica, where a new church was built in 1594.
That the Catholic Church survived at all was due mainly to the Franciscan order. A charter granted by Sultan Mehmed ll in 1463 to the Bosnian Franciscans permitted the establishment of the Franciscan Bosnian Province in 1517, which subsequently came to include also Ottoman Croatia and Hungary. In the late sixteenth century the order built a new monastery near Pozega, which became the religious centre of the Sandzak's Catholics. According to one estimate, in the late seventeenth century Ottoman Slavonia had around 220,000 inhabitants, of whom 48 per cent were Muslim, 33 per cent Catholic, 14 per cent Orthodox and 5 per cent Protestant. According to another, the Muslims formed no more than a quarter of the total population of Slavonia and Srijem in the sixteenth century, and no more than a third in the seventeenth.
Croatia Through History: The Making of a European State. Branka Magas. 2007.
[pp. 96 & 99 / Saqi]