CAPLJINA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Ignoring orders to leave their parishes, Franciscan friars in the south of Bosnia are leading their flocks in rebellion against the Vatican.

Threats, physical resistance and guards posted outside churches mark the battle in nine parishes in the southern Herzegovina region. Some Bosnians say a very earthly reason lies behind it: access to the lucrative profits from a pilgrimage site.

Vying with the Franciscans over the churches is the bishop of Mostar, the Most Rev. Ratko Peric, who is backed by the Vatican in his demand that the friars leave and allow his priests to take their places.

As with many disputes in this war-riven nation, centuries of religious tradition and warnings of violence are tied in with this conflict within the Roman Catholic Church.

The Franciscans, the church's largest religious order, were sent to Bosnia in the 13th century to spread the faith. Through the centuries they have served as keepers of Bosnia's literature and culture, and gained the sympathy of the local population.

``They've served here for 700 years, and with God's help they will serve for another 700,'' says Ana Pezer, 35.

But for reasons that were never publicly explained, the Vatican issued a decree in 1975 declaring that the Herzegovina parishes must be taken over by priests loyal to the bishop of Mostar, the main town in southern Bosnia.

The dispute continued for over two decades until Peric decided to implement the Vatican's orders shortly after the end of the Bosnian War.

In 1996, under pressure from church authorities, the friars were forced out of their posts in the town of Capljina. But parishioners walled up the entrance to the local St. Franjo's Church in protest and opened it again only when the friars returned.

It was the first of many failed bids to get rid of the Franciscans.

In Peric's latest attempt, he recently ordered eight friars to leave their parishes and offered them a chance to get jobs elsewhere. He also fired two friars from Capljina for disobeying his and the Vatican's orders, and a third friar is expected to suffer the same fate.

Peric's supporters claim some friars in Herzegovina, especially those at the pilgrimage site of Medjugorje, have violated their vows of poverty and amassed wealth, presumably from religious tourism.

For their part, the Franciscans' backers insist that Peric is trying to lay his hands on the profits of Medjugorje _ a site just north of Capljina that has been visited by more than 25 million pilgrims since 1981, when children claimed they saw the Virgin Mary appear there.

The three Capljina friars also accuse Peric of fraud, saying he opened a milk factory using money collected by the Catholic church abroad as humanitarian aid.

Feb. 28 was to have been the friars' last working day.

But Bonifacije Barbaric, Boze Rados and Mile Vlasic defied the bishop's order once again, celebrating Mass in the Capljina church, baptizing two babies and making plans for continued activities.

A few of their most loyal supporters kept guard around the church to prevent any unwelcome visitors, but Peric's envoys were nowhere to be seen.

``It is a painful fact'' that the orders to remove the friars could not be implemented because of ``organized physical resistance, heavy threats (and) the occupation of parish churches and buildings,'' Bosnia's Catholic Press Agency reported last week. The statement was issued after a meeting between Peric, Vatican envoy Mario Cassari and the Vatican-based head of the Franciscans, Stephan Ottenbreit.

None of the hundreds of parishioners seemed bothered by the fact that marriages, masses and all other activities of their friars had been declared invalid by the Vatican. But many were feeling less than reverent toward church superiors.

``Peric is a Satan,'' said 83-year-old Jela Brajkovic as she left Mass. ``He already owns a milk factory, but he wants more. He wants Medjugorje, that thief.''

If the friars are forced out, the parishioners say they will use force.

``The people are determined not to allow the Franciscans to go,'' said Vladimir Ilic, a member of the Franciscan Youth group.

``No other priest will even get to Capljina or any other parish'' listed on the Vatican decree, he said. ``If he tries, he will be beaten up.''