Waking from the Balkan nightmare
Religious leaders in the region begin to script new roles in support of pluralism.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."