Protests and the Catholic Church: Politics of Istanbul Convention Demonstrations in Croatia

By 17 April 2018

The ratification of the Istanbul Convention has aroused strong feelings and protests on both sides in recent weeks. Longterm expat resident of Split Tim Bourcier explains his views on what happened in Split last Friday in a guest blog.

On Friday, the Croatian Parliament voted to approve the Istanbul Convention by a 110-30 vote.

Prior to Friday, rallies were held throughout the country protesting the ratification vote. These rallies were organised in part by the Catholic Church in Croatia (CCC) over social media and through Church outlets. On the day prior to the parliament vote, Split’s city centre was full of thousands of flag bearers, friars and war veterans. So, what's all the fuss about?

A week earlier, a friend of mine and self-proclaimed Catholic activist, told me she was thinking of helping to organise anti-Istanbul Convention protests and to push for a country-wide referendum on ratifying the convention. Browsing my news feed on Facebook, I began to see advertisements urging people to protest against the Istanbul Convention. There were pictures of bathrooms with male, female and transgendered signs. There was talk of gay couples gaining the right to adopt. Croatian children were now going to be taught that there are multiple ''genders'' -- that people consist of more than just males and females. Everything seemed to be hinged on the word gender.

I asked my friend if she read the convention. ''No''. She did not need to. The CCC told her what it was all about.

Was the radical left in Western Europe really trying to force non-traditional values on Croatians? I had to read this for myself.

The Istanbul Convention

While I was expecting some overreaching or radical anti-discrimination act, I found myself reading the title, ''Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence''. The CCC has a problem with violence against women and domestic violence law?

I perused 81 articles and 35 pages of not-so-light reading and was pleasantly surprised by the act. The goal of the act is to codify the idea the women have basic human rights and those rights include protection against attacks, not just physical violence, but a wide variety of things, from stalking to harassment. The Convention not only criminalises acts of physical and emotional violence, but it also provides a framework for civil remedies against those committing violence. The Convention further requires education to prevent violence, support services for victims, and training for those involved in protecting the victims of such violence.

Not only women can be victims either. The Convention provides that all victims of domestic violence be afforded the same protections, and the perpetrators punishment, regardless of sex, all people are equally served justice for committing these crimes.

Was I missing something? Upon another close look at the convention language and there it was: Chapter I, Article 3 ''definitions'', Part C. ''Gender''.


''Gender shall mean the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for men and women''.

Could it really be true that some bastardised interpretation of this definition be the reason for organising nationwide protests against a violence against women act?

In the so-called traditional society that the protestors want to maintain, where women stereotypically manage household duties and child-bearing activities and the men, well, they do not do those things, it's precisely because of gender. Women are not biologically predisposed to doing laundry because they were blessed with ovaries (sex), but because those traditions were defined as their duty in society because they are women (gender). Traditions beget gender.

Why the call to arms then by the CCC?

Split Protests

The scene on the Riva on Thursday, where thousands of protestors donned Croatian flags, and veterans waived their own flags indicating their participation in the Homeland War, would make you think that the war that took place over twenty years ago was about preserving the traditions of Croatia. Yet, if Croatia wanted to ban gay marriage, keep the word gender out of education or any other thing these protestors were trying to ''protect'', Croatia did not need to leave Yugoslavia. In Serbia, much of these same traditions remain stronger there than here.

The scene was a reminder of my time in Budapest eight years ago when religious groups and the government teamed up to hold rallies that were anti-Romani, anti-homosexual and xenophobic. For a city and country that is priding itself on tourism, there is not much more unsettling for tourists than a protest full of war flags and Marko Perković Thompson blaring on the loud speaker.

But this is not what Croatia is traditionally. Lest we not forget, Grgur Ninski bucked the Romans by teaching Catholcism in Slavic when only Latin language was allowed. During two World Wars, Dalmatia was on the side of the anti-fascists. Five years ago, when Croatia decided to enter the European Union, they were also opening up to the values of the Union, including not being discriminate. The Parliament voted along with the real history of Croatia in adopting the Istanbul Convention.

The World is Watching

In 2013, the CCC felt their true power and influence when they were able to get more than 700,000 people to sign a petition and convince more than 100 parliamentary members to bring a referendum to constitutionalise the definition of marriage as being a union between a man and a woman. That vote only had a 38% turnout and it cost Croatia hundreds of thousands of euros to put in the constitution something that was already in the law.

President Ivo Josipović said at the time: ''If successful, this will only strengthen the message that we're unwilling to accept diversity, that we want to stop a clear process of the equalisation of the rights of all people throughout the democratic world, regardless of their different personal characteristics, in particular, their sexual orientation˝.

After the 2013 referendum, many international news outlets panned the outcome. The Economist stated Croatia’s old motto, ''the Mediterranean as it once was'' should not mean taking it to a time in history when minimally homosexuality should be kept in the closet, and, at worst, be criminalised. The Guardian newspaper said the vote illustrates the still existent ''rotten heart of Europe''.

In my opinion, the Croatian government made the right move by overwhelmingly adopting the Istanbul Convention. The CCC, however, was out of line for publicising and promoting protests that rallied together the rotten heart of Croatia. In Dalmatia, the CCC developed propaganda and caused chaos in the heart of tourist country, which accounts for about 20% of the country’s GDP.

The CCC promoted a protest that showed the bigoted underbelly of the country’s tourist capital where nearly 68% voted to approve the 2013 referendum. While organised protests are at the heart of a healthy democracy, the blatant spreading of lies to instill fear and fight in people is potentially criminal.

Moreover, it can taint the evolving reputation of this country and have a major affect on an economy that is not very diversified, relying heavily on tourists views of Croatia.

The CCC should not be allowed to yell ''Fire!'' in a crowded theatre. Minimally, they should pay for the cost of security for these protests. There should be a larger call to punish the CCC so they stay out of politics. While politicians should take their fair share of blame by leaning on religious values to convince voters to elect them, the church should not be involved in matters that are inherently political, and spreading lies and fear that are harmful to Croatia’s economy.

Thomas Jefferson spoke of building a wall of separation between Church and State. Now is the time for the Croatian Parliament to build this wall to protect and grow its reputation and penalize the CCC for using lies to tear it down.

Without it, Croatia could be risking its newly found treasure as a global tourist destination.