Rebuilding Faith Communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia

by Dante Keeler


“The revival of the ideology of religious nationalism was one of the main causes of the wars in which Yugoslavia broke apart” said Alen Kristić Thursday evening. “Are religions still useful when the horrors of war, symbolized by the cities of Vukovar, Srebrenica, and Sarajevo, were possible?” Kristić teaches at the University of Zagreb in Croatia and spoke at BC as the second speaker of the three-part series “Faith Communities and Civil Society During and After Conflict.” The series focuses on Syria, Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, with talks from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scholars.


Kristić, a Catholic theologian, scholar, and activist, has worked to bring open dialogue and interfaith discussion among Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia (BCS) to help cure the effects of war. He works to combat the tensions that are still rising from the postwar secular and religious traumas of the Yugoslav Wars, specifically the Bosnian War (1992-95).


After the fall of Communism in BCS, political leaders spurred patriotism in the form of nationalism—the term “nation” is used more ethnically in BCS, referring to “The Serbian Nation” or “The Croatian Nation,” etc., rather than a substitute for the word “country”—and religions followed suit, giving rise to Political Catholicism, Political Orthodoxy, and Political Islam. “Religious leaders put themselves at the service of national parties, legitimizing the usurpation of religious resources by national ideologies. They naïvely believed that national renewal would automatically guarantee channeling [sic] religious renewal,” Kristić said. Thus, religious association with a particular “nation” helped create the fervor that sparked some of the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars, such as ethnic cleansing. In Kristić’s view, the “hubris of the nation, followed by hatred of others, obliterates the memory of the equality of all people before God.”


Even after twenty years, these problems persist today. For example, some towns and villages still segregate students in the classroom along “ethnic metrics.” Kristić says that in BCS, the “warlike atmosphere doesn’t allow the essence of the religious to take root,” causing communities to be pitted against each other with neither Christianity nor Islam practicing forgiveness. Communities only remember and glorify their own victims from the wars and over-exaggerate their role, even getting excited to be the victim.


But why does Kristić only highlight religion? His answer lies in the reason they were chosen for the revival of nationalism in the first place: “Religious communities have long been creators of national consciences, memory, and culture.” The “ethic responsibility” of the communities lies with the religious community, and for the past twenty years, there has been interfaith dialogue but it hasn’t done enough. Kristić believes that social justice lies at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. Religious leaders only have generalized dialogue on principle, they’re not focused on fixing actual problems. And, Kristić suggests, “Our communities don’t have the strength and the stamina to stand together and demand social justice. They don’t have this strength to point fingers at the people who are creating the impoverishment that we’re seeing.” To fix these problems, Kristić calls for an end to “selective memory,” education for peace, dialogue, gender equality, and for forgiveness.


Despite all these failures, Kristić still sees hope; the success of the “coexistence of Islam and Christianity in Bosnia is a huge source of positive capital for that region and the world.” Kristić and other Christians living in Bosnia alongside Muslims can see that Islam is not a threat to their Christianity; likewise, Muslims have been living in secular states in Southeastern Europe and have discovered that living in a secular state is not a threat to Islam. The communities can even share prayers with each other and enrich their faiths. “It would be wonderful for people in Europe to hear us talk about those sorts of things, and not just about war.”


The wounds of war will still take about 10-15 years to heal, says Kristić. “Our country is going to have a future when we start building monuments of people who fell at our hand.”


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