``They say bad things about the Ustashe,'' Sister Maximila said. ``But to us they were defending Croat culture, and they are heroes.''

The photograph of Ante Pavelic, leader of the wartime, pro-Nazi Croatian state, is proudly displayed in the home of two Catholic priests.

"Bosnian Croats Resist Peace in Name of "Culture""

New York Times, Feb. 13, 1996

By Mike O'Connor

BOBANI, Bosnia-Herzegovina - On holy days, as priests move from home to home over the footpaths of villages here in western Bosnia, residents keenly monitor their steps. They know which family has been visited and blessed and which will next have a few intimate moments with the men who are regarded here as the guardians of Croatian history and culture as much as of the Roman Catholic religion.

The Rev. Vinko Mikolic, in the familiar brown hooded robe and rope cinch of the Franciscan order, was being trailed by village children and a cat on his rounds recently when he stopped to explain to a visitor why Croats here will never abide by the promises to share power with the Bosnian government.

The promises of cooperation made by Croatian politicians and diplomats are based on a considerably more flexible point of view. But whether made sincerely or not, the promises have not been kept. Instead, the idea of the Bosnian government and local Croat leaders jointly administering roughly half of Bosnia in a federation has run against a wall of difficulties so great that foreign diplomasts closest to the plan are increasingly doubtful that it will work, even though they continue to be optimistic in public statements.

If the plan fails, the diplomats say, there is little chance for the Bosnian peace agreement to work. It was also pressure from Washington in March 1994 that created the federation as part of an agreement that ended about 10 months of fighting between Muslim and Croatian forces.

At the heart of the trouble are the intractable views of local Croatian political and religious leaders in western Bosnia. Here, many extremely hardline nationalists portray the federation as a betrayal of essential Croatian values.

While some local resistance was expected, diplomats say they thought it could be overcome by political pressure from Croatia, which most Bosnian Croats regard as their cultural homeland. However, the refusal to accept the federation continues, as seen in tensions between the two sides in places like the Usora Valley and in the divided city of Mostar.

For their part, Bosnian government and local Muslim officials have stated publicly that they support the 1994 agreement that created the federation, and there appears to be no widespread opposition among ordinary Bosnian Muslims.

For Sister Maximila, Bosnian Croats are simply resisting another blow by mortal enemies, as they have for centuries. In their lonely struggle, as she explained it, they have often been misunderstood.

Before a mural covering the wall behind the altar of St. Stephen's Church, on a hill above this village, she pointed out scenes in the painting, titled ``The Suffering of the Croat People.''

There is their defeat by the Turks, their battles with the Serbs through history, and the establishment of a Nazi-backed Croatian fascist movement during World War II known as the Ustashe.

On the mural, next to images of Franciscan priests, is the local hero of the Nazi period, Ranko Boban, in the uniform worn by the Croatian nationalists who killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Muslims, as well as Croatian opponents.

As Bosnian Croats dig in their heels, the government of Croatia, through which the West was to exert control over them, is losing its influence, according to diplomats.

Behind the curtain, he predicted, they will resist until they win. The resistance is taking place in an environment in which defending Croatian values may allow some people to justify killings.

Pulijic described the Bosnian Croat political leader, Dario Kordic, who has been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague for the killing of Muslim civilians, as a very good man being persecuted for his defense of Croats.

They explained that people who think the Ustashe regime was guilty of genocide have been duped by anti-Croatian propaganda. Foreign officials responsible for assisting the federation say the Bosnian Croat authorities are resisting because they want to avoid sharing power with the Muslim authorities. While that may be true, there is an undeniable current of nationalism in the Bosnian Croat towns and villages in these mountains.

A farmer, Jure Ilicic, 56, laid his hand on his 18-year-old son's shoulder and said: ``I have six sons, and if we are told to share our government with Muslims, all of them will join me in the war that will come.''

The Rev. Ante Maric said the Bosnian Croats of the region are the oldest ethnically pure people in Europe, and have held fast to the Catholic religion since the 7th century.

At a dinner table he shared with Mikolic, Maric excitedly produced books, poems, and bits of headstones he said were 1,300 years old and found in the church cemetery to prove his point.

The priests described their opposition to the Bosnian peace agreement as part of the Croats' historic effort to defend Christianity against Islam, to protect the West from the East.