To understand why the Franciscans are so powerful in Medjugorje, you have to go back to the history of a region where Catholicism has generally struggled to gain a foothold. The Church first evangelised what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 9th century, but it proved difficult to convert the inhabitants of this isolated and mountainous land.

In the centuries that followed, a small sect emerged known as the Bosnian Church. Most scholars believed the Bosnians practised a form of Bogomilism or Catharism, though some think they were simply unwilling to subject themselves to either of the two factions that emerged during the Great Schism. In any event, Rome spent centuries trying to impose its authority on Bosnia, culminating in a Crusade launched by Pope Honorius III in 1225. But the Mongol invasion of Europe in 1241 forced the predominantly Hungarian crusaders to withdraw and defend their homeland.

Rome then decided to shift gears. In March of 1291, Pope Nicholas IV issued a bull, Prae cunctis, authorising the Franciscans to lead an inquisition against the Bosnian gnostics. Their first vicarate, which was established in 1340, remains in operation today.

In 1386, the Ottoman Empire began a series of raids into Bosnia that eventually grew into a full-scale invasion. By 1451, they had effectively subjugated the indigenous nobility and imposed military rule, which left the Franciscans in a dangerous position. They were an isolated group of Catholics living under the rule of an Islamic empire.

To make matters worse, several of Bosnia’s neighbours – including Hungary – had fought a crusade against the Ottomans less than a decade earlier. Was there any chance their conquerors were feeling merciful?

In 1463, the Franciscan friar Anđeo Zvizdović met Mehmed II, who was still in Bosnia overseeing the occupation, and convinced him to extend religious liberties to the country’s Catholics. Mehmed issued the Ahdname of Milodraž, declaring that “the Bosnian Franciscans… are under my protection,” and ensuring that “no one shall insult, put in danger or attack these lives, properties, and churches of these people.”

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