Patient Fight for Religious Tolerance in Bosnia

by Kathy Jones on  January 1, 2011 at 8:48 PM Lifestyle News
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Bosnia continues to move on a slow, but steady path of religious tolerance.

Defying an icy downpour, an imam and a Catholic priest made their way up the Majevica mountain in northeastern Bosnia to meet two Orthodox priests whose church was burgled.
 Patient Fight for Religious Tolerance in Bosnia
Patient Fight for Religious Tolerance in Bosnia

The visit was a rare show of religious solidarity in Bosnia where memories of its bloody war between Croats, Muslim and Serbs remain sharp and ethnic divisions persist.

"To desecrate a church is like desecrating a mosque," lamented imam Asim Rizvic to the orthodox priests, in front of their tiny stone church under construction on the site of a monastery destroyed in Ottoman times.

Unidentified thieves broke a window and forced open its door to steal a power generator and various tools belonging to the builders.

Rizvic, who himself was forced to flee his native village during the 1992-95 war and took refuge in a hamlet near Rozanj, understood the frustration of the priests. They were hoping the presence of the church would nudge villagers to return.

"People who fled during the war feel much more secure if a church or a mosque is built in the village when they return," Rizvic said.

Of some 130 Serb families who lived in Rozanj before the conflict, only two or three have returned, bemoaned Orthodox priest Zoran Ilic.

The remote hamlet -- a stone's throw from the border between Bosnia's two post-war entities, the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republika Srpska, and 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the nearest paved road -- has received no help for reconstruction. The tiny church is surrounded by houses that were nearly all razed to the ground.

After the war, Rozanj found itself in the Muslim-Croat part of Bosnia and the priests fear the theft could undermine their efforts to encourage the Bosnian Serbs who fled Rozanj to return home.

The priests say they've gotten no support from local authorities.

"They do not want us back, they are sabotaging our efforts," Ilic charged. "But this is our land, we will never sell it."

Bosnia's two post-war entities are highly autonomous and strongly divided along ethnic lines. Fifteen years on, tensions linger and in 2010 alone, some 50 attacks were recorded on churches, mosques and other religious symbols, according to the country's Inter-Religious Council.

A local non-governmental agency, with help from the Norwegian government, has been trying to organise "inter-confessional" visits to promote religious dialogue in communities where attacks have taken place.

"In most cases, the targets are minorities. The attacks are carried out to make them understand that they have to leave, that living together is impossible," Emir Kovacevic, an official on their Inter-Religious Council, told AFP

This happened in the eastern town of Zvornik, across the divide in the Republika Srpska, where only around 15 percent of local Muslims have returned to their pre-war homes.

Twenty-three mosques were destroyed in and around Zvornik during the war and some 15 have been rebuilt, said local imam Mustafa Muharemovic, but the return of the Muslim population has been slow and at times painful.

"Sometimes we discovered a slaughtered pig in a mosque being rebuilt," Muharemovic recalled, a desecration in Islam which considers pigs unclean and bans eating pork. He said the situation has since improved.

Overall, some 40 percent of Bosnia's population of 3.8 million inhabitants are Muslims. Orthodox Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats represent respectively about 31 and 10 percent of the population.

In the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, the official in charge of inter-religious relations at the Catholic Archdiocese, Monsignor Mato Zovkic, blames such attacks on what he calls the "arrogance of the majority".

The handful of Catholic churches in Sarajevo, where Muslims represent a vast majority, are often vandalised.

"The windows of one new church have been broken so often that the priest is wondering if it is worth repairing them," Zovkic told AFP.

"Catholics sometimes complain that people ask them what are they still doing in Sarajevo, and it hurts us a lot," he lamented, adding there are "no quick solutions to develop mentalities. Minorities have to be patient."

Source: AFP

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