Waking from the Balkan nightmare

Religious leaders in the region begin to script new roles in support of pluralism.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The explosion ripped through the Serbian Orthodox church in Cernica on Jan. 14, raising to at least 77 the number of Christian churches and monasteries destroyed or desecrated since power switched hands in Kosovo last summer. Before then, mosques had been a target. During the war in neighboring Bosnia, Serbs and Croats destroyed some 1,400 mosques.

For religious leaders in the Balkans, the devastation represents not only deliberate blows to their people's spirits, and the loss of centuries-old masterworks of European art and architecture. It speaks also to the daunting tasks they face as they strive to define a new leadership role in the rebuilding of their societies.

And it underscores the courage demanded of anyone trying to reach across the ethno-religious divides to work toward a democratic and pluralistic future.

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Key religious leaders are trying to do just that in Bosnia and Kosovo. Last week, the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina - the Muslim leader, Serbian Orthodox metropolitan, Roman Catholic archbishop, and president of the Jewish community - hosted a two-day meeting of the top religious leaders from Kosovo, who worked on a strategy for common action under precarious and extreme circumstances. Also, 28 religious leaders from the entire region met for two days in late 1999 in Amman, Jordan, and issued a three-page Statement on Reconstruction and Development in South East Europe.

"It was the first meeting in history of our different religions," says Qemajl Morina, vice-dean of the Islamic Theological Faculty in Kosovo. "I never before thought I would see around the table Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish leaders."

"This initiative was very constructive, and historically very important," says Archbishop Anastasios, leader of the Albanian Orthodox Church. "We agreed that even if there are other forces that try to use religion for conflict, we must have the courage [to speak out]. It must be stressed that every type of war in the name of religion is an offense against religion."

The statement acknowledges the effects of communism, conflict, and the misuse of religion in the region; asks for forgiveness and reconciliation across communities; and commits to promoting democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and a strong civil society. It outlines a series of steps for religious leaders to take to promote respect for different faiths, take responsibility for protecting minorities, and work to reconstitute society.

"Political leaders and institutions have a primary role and responsibility for building strong states," the statement says, "but material reconstruction and development can be long lasting only with a corresponding moral and social reconstruction."

"The people of Eastern Europe need help, but if the patient doesn't have the energy inside to get healed, no doctor can help from the outside," says Reis-ul-Ulema Mustafa Ceric, the top leader of Bosnia's Islamic community. A spiritual revival is what's needed, many leaders say.

"The causes of our problems are historical," Dr. Ceric adds, "most strikingly from the half century lived under a totalitarian regime. We lost self-esteem, we lost a sense of the beauty of personal independence, the sense of enjoying constructive initiatives, the way to think forward."

Religion was repressed under communism, and the practice of faith severely weakened. When communism collapsed and religion resurfaced as a prime cultural identifier between groups in Yugoslavia, people's understanding of the faiths was limited. R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, calls this "religious illiteracy" - "the virtual absence of second-order moral reflection and basic theological knowledge," a condition "that increases the likelihood of collective violence in crisis situations." In his book, "The Ambivalence of the Sacred," Dr. Appleby explores religion's roles in violence and peacebuilding.

As politicians exploited religious symbols for their nationalistic dreams, some clergy failed to speak out, or went along. Others who took a stand were sometimes beaten. Today, leaders recognize their responsibility for the future and are trying to understand their proper role in relating to politics. They see strength in working together, if they can deal with the divisive forces around them. "We need the support of civil and religious groups all over the world," says Vinko Cardinal Puljic, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sarajevo.

The region-wide meeting was sponsored by the World Conference on Religion and Peace, an organization of top religious leaders in more than 100 countries headquartered in New York. It was spurred, in part, by the international community's new regional strategy - the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe - launched in Sarajevo last July. Europe and the United States recognize in the pact that the Balkans can't go it alone, and pledge major initiatives in democratization, economic development, and security.

The persistence of bitter divisions in Bosnia is a potent reminder of the limits of material reconstruction. "The Dayton Accord stopped the war, but there is still no stable peace, and the institutions are not functioning in healthy ways," says Cardinal Puljic. "The pact for stability for South Eastern Europe should respect spiritual and moral values as well.... We need to build a reconciliation process."

WCRP has had staff on the ground in Bosnia since 1997, working with local leaders to develop the Interreligious Council (IRC). It had begun to do the same in Kosovo, holding the first session just three weeks before the NATO bombing began. The chaos of last spring cut the lines of communication, and the Amman meeting offered the first opportunity for Kosovo's clergy to speak to one another since the dramatic change in circumstances. Despite the continuing dangers of cross-community interaction, they again met face-to-face last week in Sarajevo, and issued a "statement of shared moral commitment" in support of "common living."

Mr. Morina, of the Islamic community, expresses hope that a Kosovo IRC can "play an important role in [bringing] peace and stability to Kosovo," and even in eventually working "toward reconciliation."

No one underestimates the difficulties. "The war in Kosovo was not a religious war, and ... it was fought by extremists who were atheists on both sides," says Fr. Sava Janjic, secretary to Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije. So the influence of religious communities is limited, he says.

Phone lines where they live at Gracanica Monastery are regularly cut by ethnic Albanians, says Fr. Sava, who is known as "the cyber-monk" for his work on the Internet (www.decani.yunet.com). Serbs are in constant danger, and the remaining 100,000 are ghettoized in a few enclaves. International troops have tried to help, he says, but "they have failed in the main mission - to prevent one crime and repression from being replaced by another."

The Serbs see the interreligious effort as valuable. "We can cooperate if we all agree to condemn the violence on all sides." And, Fr. Sava adds, "we must be openly against extremism and support democratization of the area. Emotional gestures of friendship are vain if we do not begin to make a difference among the people ... on the moral level."

In Bosnia, where the communities are more isolated than before the war, the IRC now has a public presence. It issues joint statements; has put out a book to educate the public and media about each of the faiths; and produces a weekly radio program on issues of public concern. The religious leaders appeared for 90 minutes on state TV discussing their commitment to working together for a pluralist society.

"The only other gatherings of people from different communities are when the international community forces the politicians to sit down together," says Jim Cairns, WCRP's coordinator in Sarajevo. "For people to see the four leaders together in this way is tremendously important."

But institution-building is a lengthy process, demanding lots of dialogue and "the practice of cooperation," Mr. Cairns says. "The leaders in Bosnia have been in conversation for 2-1/2 years. It is only in the last six months that the council has begun to function as a body." Communications broke down in 1998 when political tensions and events interfered.

Now IRC working committees meet regularly to produce the radio program and resolve legal issues such as: return of property taken by the state, so they can operate freely and independently; permission for displaced religious leaders to return to villages so refugees will feel safe to go home.

"The more you practice cooperation, the more the trust builds, and eventually the more able you are to confront the really hard issues - the justice issues," Cairns adds. "How do we get to true reconciliation? Without that dialogue and cooperation, you're never going to have the trust to be willing to say to your previous enemy, 'We're sorry, our community committed crimes.' "

Clergy see this kind of apology and forgiveness as essential to a hopeful future - but a long way down the road.

Albanian Archbishop Anastasios - whose Orthodox churches collected $10 million and serviced refugee camps for thousands of Muslim Kosovars - puts it this way: "At this time when we have radioactive hate in the region, the only antidote is initiatives of sincere love, each carried out with boldness and persistence.... God has the last word. If we are open to ways to obey Him,... we may have visions of what we can do."

The WCRP initiatives have also cracked the door open to fresh perspectives.

"The Amman gathering helped religious leaders see the situation from a broader point of view and discover some opportunities for their communities to become more significant in shaping a new, more humane society," says Drago Ocvirk, professor of theology in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Ljubljana, Slovenia. They also discovered, he adds, that "the only way to a solution is cooperation."

Ceric says, "I hope our message is heard in Chechnya and other regions of the former Soviet Union: 'We must live with each other, so it is better to do so before you spill more blood.' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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