Bosnia: Efforts to improve inter-religious relations

By Ingrid Vik and Anne Hushagen

The arrest of Mladic is a reminder in international media of the still challenging situation in Bosnia-Hercegovina, an ethnically and religiously divided post-war society 16 years after the Dayton agreement put a halt to the bloodiest war Europe has seen since WWII.

The Oslo Center, and our partners (Search for Common Ground, Religions for Peace, One World in Dialogue) have together developed a universal code for protection of holy sites. As part of this project, we are conducting a pilot project in Bosnia Herzegovina aiming to transform the visions of this universal code into concrete measures. The Oslo Center has the main responsibility for the follow-up of this pilot.

The goal of the pilot is to improve relations across Bosnia Herzegovina, a country still ethnically and religiously divided after the civil war between Serbs, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats during the 1990s. Religious intolerance in Bosnia Herzegovina directly reflects ethnic intolerance, given the indistinguishable identification of ethnicity with religious background, the three groups constituting Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.

Attacks on religious and ethnic minorities and their holy places is occuring across Bosnia Hercegovia, as all three groups find themselves in a minority-situation in various places in the country. Such attacks or incidents can be acts of vandalism, arsons, burglaries, harrassment, desegration of grave sites, obstruction with regard to the rebuilding of destroyed religious shrines – and in some cases – even killings.

The local implementing partner for the pilot project is the Inter-religious Council (IRC) in BiH. The main elements of the pilot consist of establishing mechanisms for receiving reports on incidents and attacks. Secondly, routines for verifying the information received has been established. Thirdly, and most importantly in cases of incidents, the IRC will promote an immediate multi-religious response condemning the attack. For instance, in the case of an attack towards a mosque in Republika Sprska, the secretariate of the IRC will conduct a visit to the affected site and facilitate a multi-religious condemnation on the spot, by the local imam and priest to the media representatives present. Accordingly, if an Orthodox church is attacked, which is happening more frequently in the Bosnian Federation where the Serbs constitute the minority population in many areas, the local imam will be giving a joint statement with the local priest in front of the Church that has been attacked. By facilitating an immediate multi-religious reaction, the affected community will be given a quick and joint response.

Common statements
The potential impact in local communities across BiH when religious leaders give statements together in public should not be underestimated. Indirectly such joint statements builds trust and improves communication among religious’ communities representatives in the local communities. As one old Serbian many told us during our last visit to BiH: “When the religious leaders come together and make statements, I feel more safe”.

The pilot project started 1 November 2011, and its first phase will last for a year. Late April, the IRC so far has received 28 reports of attacks across BiH, 15 occurred in the Federation and 13 in the Republika Srpska. Interestingly, the distribution of attacks is so far fairly even between the three main religious communities; Islamic community (10 attacks), Catholic community (9 attacks), and the Orthodox community (9 attacks), while the small Jewish community also has seen two attacks during this period.

It might be a bit premature to draw any clear conclusions after only 6 months project implementation. However, in one instance, religious representatives visited the Catholic priest without IRCs organisation, following an attack on the Catholic Parish office in Doboj on the night between 23 and 24th of November last year. Such initiatives could serve as an indicator that the project might be producing effects. So far, only one such case has been seen. Thus, a more thorough analysis of the further project developments and results will be conducted after the first one year period is finalized.

A successful implementation of this pilot project could potentially increase confidence and trust among people and between religious communities in today’s Bosnia Herzegovina. And moreover, experiences and lessons learnt from this project will provide important knowledge for other countries and contexts experiencing similar challenges in relation to their holy sites.

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