Religion in the Bosnian Conflict

By Douglas Johnston and Jonathan Eastvold

For eighteen days in February of 1984, a divided world set aside its rhetoric and took its differences to the ski slopes.  The occasion was the XIV Winter Olympics, held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.  Despite the death of Soviet president Yuri Andropov and the ongoing violence in Beirut, reporters remarked that “the scene in Sarajevo was a kind of Balkan Oz—sweet and surreal and dreamlike in its detachment from all other places and all other happenings on the rest of the planet.”[i]  Indeed, more than one observer remarked on the “powerful irony in the fact that Sarajevo, the hotbed of political intrigue that touched off World War I, should be so laid back when it came to the volatile events of 1984.”[ii]  Optimism ran high.  Even U.S. News & World Report commented that the games signaled “a brighter future for this grimy industrial city in the mountains of Yugoslavia” and forecasted that “when the Olympic torch will be extinguished, Sarajevo will be among the winners.”[iii]  Given its strategic location between East and West, its leadership role in the Non-Aligned Movement[iv], and the way that it had apparently managed to  suppress the deep ethnoreligious divisions afflicting the country,[v] Yugoslavia seemed poised for even greater success.

Seven years later, Sarajevo was the scene of the most harrowing European siege since Leningrad’s 900-day ordeal during World War II.  The comparisons to an Oz-like fairyland were abruptly supplanted by apt descriptions of war-torn Sarajevo as a “hell on earth.”

Roots of the Conflict: Four Interpretations

In the Bosnian conflict, religion was deemed so inconsequential—at least by the intellectual élite—that one commentator could quip that the three sides “are of the same race, speak the same language, and are distinguished only by their religion—in which none of them believe.”[vi]  The ferocity of the conflict belies such a simplistic explanation, however.

Three possible explanations present themselves, each of which provides part of the story.[vii] The first is that the outbreak of fighting in the 1990s was merely the latest chapter in a long history of an ethnic conflict that is too complex for outsiders to understand and too intractable to be resolved.  Its logical conclusion is perhaps best expressed by a contributor to an Internet newsgroup: “Let them keep on killing each other and the problem will solve itself.”[viii]  A second and related possibility maintains that the conflict is an inevitable fault line conflict consistent with Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations.”  This notion is popular among belligerents on all sides, who tend to give the conflict a strongly religious dimension by portraying it, in the words of Croatian sociologist Srdjan Vrcan, as “centuries-long conflicts between essentially opposed human types, types of cultures and civilizations,…[one of which is portrayed] as quasi-immaculate and as the side of the Good as such [and the other] in demonical or satanic terms as the incarnation of evil as such.”[ix]  As Bosnian Serb nationalist Radovan Karadzic stated in a 1993 interview, “[the] West will be grateful to us some day because we decided to defend Christian values and culture.”[x]  A perhaps more balanced perspective is provided by Mitja Velakonja, a sociologist at the University of Ljubjana:

In certain parts of the former federal state, the population was so integrated that their nationality was not distinguishable, and in such places former brothers became “eternal” enemies.  By way of this Croats became “genocidal Ustasha,” Bosnians are “Islamic mujahedin” fighting a “jihad,” the Serbs are born Chetniks, and the Slovenes, Austria’s stable-hands….The principal community needs an enemy against which it can establish itself as the radical opposition and, by way of this, define its complementary imaginative mythical order.  For the enemy to play its role effectively, it also has to assume some metaphysical dimensions.[xi]

A third alternative emphasizes the long history of coexistence between religious and ethnic groups in cities like Sarajevo, and argues that the conflict was not inevitable but was rather fanned into flame by political opportunists like Slobodan Milosevic who, foreseeing Communism’s demise, made a “compact with nationalism” as a means of staying in power.[xii]  This perspective is summarized well by Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Dayton Peace Accord:

Yugoslavia’s tragedy was not foreordained.  It was the product of bad, even criminal, political leaders who encouraged ethnic confrontation for personal political and financial gain.  Rather than tackle the concrete problems of governance in the post-Tito era, they led their people into a war.[xiii]

Much of the apparent clash between these schools can be attributed to differences between those Serbs residing in urban centers such as Belgrade and those living in rural communities.  As University of Washington political scientist Sabrina Petra Ramet argues in her article “Nationalism and the ‘idiocy’ of the countryside: the case of Serbia,” although the culturally and ethnically heterogeneous city is very often tolerant, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated, the countryside tends to be very loyal to “the way things have always been” and suspicious of “foreigners” (whether they are from the next village or the next continent).  Rural dwellers thus tend to view the world in terms of the ongoing struggle to defend their pristine way of life against a hostile world.  Indeed, as one observer notes, “the great divide within Yugoslav society was increasingly that between rural and urban communities, not that between peoples.”[xiv]  Due to the Communist era’s de-emphasis of ethnic and religious distinctions, it was much more common (and easier) for mixed marriages to occur in urban centers.  As a result of this intermarriage, people’s municipal identities became much more important to them than their national identity[xv]; a Croat living in Sarajevo had more in common with her Muslim neighbor than her compatriots in rural Herzegovina.

This heterogeneity did not carry over to the rural population, however, notwithstanding ongoing attempts to address rural problems of illiteracy and cultural insularity.  In Serbia, at least, much of the resurgent nationalism surfaced first in Kosovo, where Serbs in several rural enclaves still cherished bitterness against what they viewed as the Albanian ‘usurpation’ of their ancestral homeland.  Between 1981 and 1987, political pressure and repeated protests by the Kosovar Serb peasantry provided the impetus for getting the Serbian government to adopt a harder line.[xvi]  The coalition of Serb peasants, political opportunists, and nationalist-minded intellectuals[xvii] proved irresistible.

Ramet contends that Titoist Yugoslavia attempted to impose “the values of the city” on the primarily rural Serbian population.  In the late 1980s, as the ‘Yugoslav project’ crumbled, Slobodan Milosevic rode the wave of Serbian nationalism to power as the countryside triumphed over the city.[xviii]  In the 1990 Serbian election, for example, support for Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) derived more of its support from the villages and small towns than the opposition parties, whose support was concentrated in Belgrade and other large cities.[xix] Illustrative of the rural-urban cleavage   was the refusal of many Serbs to side with their rural compatriots against their non-Serbian neighbors of many years during the early phases of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina; those Serbs who defended their neighbors were often killed or interned along with them.[xx]

To some extent, each of the  above perspectives has merit. The “primordial hatreds” view is generally espoused by those urban dwellers who focus their analysis on rural dwellers[xxi].  Travelogues such as Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts—where a Western journalist compiles interviews with rural populations embroiled in ethnoreligious rivalry—are a case in point.[xxii]  Similarly, the “clash of civilizations” view is the generally preferred interpretation by the belligerents—mostly rural dwellers voicing rural concerns—who see the differences as intractable and the choice not one of war or peace but of winning or losing.  Finally, there is the “paradise lost” view of the urban dwellers, based on the unique history of inclusiveness of such cities as Sarajevo.[xxiii]  Each school of thought accurately describes one aspect of the conflict.  Taken together, the shortsightedness of external parties acting from only one of these perspectives becomes clear (see Table 1).

Perhaps this analytical complexity is best addressed by adopting a composite approach that takes into account the strengths and weaknesses of each of these perspectives:  one can acknowledge the existence and importance of the beliefs and claims made by the rural nationalists without recognizing their legitimacy.  To the extent that these beliefs influence the behavior of a major faction, they are a factor.  Whether or not they are legitimate or even true has little bearing on whether they need to be taken into account.  Although historical arguments can be mustered to refute such a perspective, the fact that people treat it as true precludes its dismissal by a “better informed” elite.  Regardless of its validity, adherents to a religious-nationalist vision of history will regard it as factual and behave accordingly.  As Serbian author Darko Tanasković argues (specifically with respect to interpretations of a book by Alija Izetbegović, the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina [hereafter BiH]),

Even if by some chance the Serbs and Croats were mistaken when they understood the Islamic Declaration as a threatening manifest of Islamic fundamentalism, their hermeneutic principles should have been taken into account.  Politically and later militarily, they behaved in accordance with their own, rather than Western convictions, and this fact proved to be decisive in determining the course of events and deterioration of circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina.[xxiv]

Against this backdrop, the drama unfolded that ultimately destroyed the mosaic known as Yugoslavia.  Although it is difficult within the confines of a single chapter to do justice to even one aspect of the Bosnian ordeal in this broader context, an attempt will nevertheless be made to treat the Serbian dimension, with secondary mention of other groups as needed.

History of the Conflict

The First Yugoslavia: Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes

Following World War I, the breakup of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires led to the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (also known as the “Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes”), which lasted until it was conquered by Germany in World War II.  In large part, this united kingdom was a marriage of convenience among the different ethnic groups. For Croats, joining in a federation with the previously independent Serbs seemed like an ideal way to avoid being devoured by Italian expansionism along the Adriatic Coast. (As evidenced by the later Italian moves on Albania and Greece during the early years of World War II, this was no frivolous worry.)  Serbia, on the other hand, had been an independent country before 1914, and was principally interested in bringing all Serbs together under the political roof of a “Greater Serbia.”[xxv]  This desire to incorporate all areas with large numbers of Serbs outside of Serbia into a single country in which Serbs comprised a majority of the population was the principal motive both for their initial support of a union of South Slavs and for their opposition to its breakup decades later.  The guiding vision of this multiethnic kingdom was that of “a harmonious [and equal] community of fraternal nations: compatriots and relatives”; similarity, not sameness, was the goal.[xxvi]

The Second Yugoslavia: Titoist Communism

After World War II, the Communist guerrillas who formed the backbone of the Yugoslav resistance took power under Josip Broz, better known as Marshal Tito.  Like Marx, Tito viewed religion and culture as vestiges of backward institutions designed to ameliorate the masses.  Given the power of the ethnoreligious violence that had been unleashed during the war, the Communists recognized that they could not immediately extirpate these older loyalties.  They instead adopted a two-pronged strategy to reduce the political salience of these distinctions.  First, they created a federal system that gave weight to each republic’s concerns in order to avoid hegemony by any particular group.  Second, they built an elite consensus around materialist and Marxist values in hopes that this consensus would trickle down to the upwardly mobile provincial masses.[xxvii]  As one historian notes, the religious and nationalist “mythologies” were replaced by the new mythology of the “national liberation struggle” against the Axis powers, which simultaneously united most Yugoslavs (with the possible exception of Croats) and gave the ruling party a modicum of moral legitimacy.[xxviii]  To this end, Tito launched a withering attack on the Serbian Orthodox Church (Srpska Pravoslavna Crkva, hereafter SPC), imprisoning many of its most dedicated priests.  Moreover, the ethnoreligious violence that had been unleashed during the war led a significant number of Yugoslavs to reject religious belief and practice in reaction.[xxix]  These two phenomena left the SPC scrambling for options.  Some years later, when Tito judged that his repression of the SPC had run its course, he offered it a modicum of official patronage.  Confronted with plummeting church attendance, dramatic shortages of funds, and the depletion of its clergy through retirement and imprisonment, the SPC had little choice but to accept this offer on Tito’s terms.

The Fall of Yugoslavia

The confederal system created by Tito’s 1974 constitution, which required unanimity on the part of all republics in all decisions, enabled the rest of the country to defy the will of the Serbs.  In the 1980s, as discrimination against Serbs by Albanians in Kosovo increasingly concerned the Serbian leadership (both ecclesial and political) and no real administrative solution was apparent, the stage was set for a charismatic figure to champion the Serbian nationalists’ cause .  These measures disturbed the Croats and motivated them to more aggressively pursue the opportunity presented by Communism’s fall to reassert a more authentically Croatian identity.  Fearing Serbian domination, they began to push for greater autonomy, with an eye toward total independence at some point in the future.  This, in turn, caused the Serbian minority in Croatia’s Krajina region to fear for their rights.  The Croatian move to allow only street signs in the Roman alphabet (as contrasted with the rest of Yugoslavia, which used both the Roman and the Cyrillic alphabets)[xxx] raised fears that Croatia was determined to blot out any Serbian influence. Croatia’s later adoption of the checkerboard symbol (the symbol of the hated ustasha that massacred innumerable Serbs during World War II) as its national emblem terrified Serbs, for many of whom the memory of the war was still painfully fresh.

In Bosnia, Serb reactions to the stirrings of Kosovar Albanian irredentism led Bosnian Muslims to express solidarity with their co-religionists.  This, in turn, was used to corroborate the Serbian nationalist claim that the Serbs were threatened by a pan-Islamic conspiracy.[xxxi]   Similarly, the much higher birthrate among Muslims gave the nationalists a pretext to allege that when the Muslims gained a majority of the population they would establish a Muslim state.  Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović’s reassurances that BiH could not be turned into a Muslim state because there was not a Muslim majority thus gave rise to fears that the prospect of “some kind of Islamic, Muslim state…is not rejected but simply postponed.”[xxxii]  In short, political leaders preyed upon the lurking fears of their constituencies to galvanize support for their political aims.  Inasmuch as these aims were mutually exclusive (i.e., Croatia could not be both an independent state and part of a Serb-controlled Yugoslavia, and the Bosnian Serbs could not be under Serbian rule if Bosnia retained its integrity as a separate republic), any peaceful resolution was rendered exceedingly difficult.  Political leaders like Milosevic attempted to garner support for themselves by provoking their constituencies to action against their enemies.  Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, however, the power of that provocation was greater than what they had bargained for, and the bluff of forceful action soon metamorphosed into a credible threat that they had to follow up.  In addition, unlike the normal instruments of state power that can be applied and removed in a Clausewitzian fashion, public sentiment once aroused is averse to compromise.  One does not negotiate with eternal enemies. As Dean Pruitt and Jeffrey Rubin observe in Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, “escalated conflict often weakens a community’s capacity to deal effectively with further conflict.”[xxxiii]  The gods of war, once summoned, do not depart empty-handed.

Recap: Why the breakup occurred:

Broadly put, Yugoslavia dissolved into ethnoreligious war because the normal give-and-take of the political process was stalemated by a federal system that required unanimity among the republics on major issues.  The incompatible political aims of each ethnicity’s elites were therefore dealt with outside the established channels; and, in the political equivalent of tipping a pinball machine, each side rallied grassroots support for its agenda by preying on the deepest fears of its constituencies, spreading propaganda and distorted news coverage.  The fragile bonds of interethnic trust that had been painstakingly constructed during Tito’s regime were easily shattered by the venom of the state-run presses.  Once people believed that the other ethnoreligious groups were conspiring to exterminate them, they saw no choice but to resort to violence in order to protect themselves, their families, and their nation.

Religion’s Role in the Conflict

The question at hand is what role religious actors played (positively or negatively) in the development and course of the conflict, as well as what role religious actors might play in resolving it.  Even if religion was not a root cause of the conflict, as this chapter argues, its implications for the issues of ultimate reality that influence people’s identities and behavior are significant and need to be addressed.  By ignoring generally religious issues, the West overlooked one of the major elements of this conflict, not only inhibiting a correct diagnosis but also overlooking (if not spurning) the assistance of possible allies within the religious traditions in question.

Specifically, the West’s focus on economic incentives is of only partial utility.  Economic incentives may be decisive considerations for policymaking and economic elites, but a populace (once it is successfully mobilized on ethnoreligious grounds) is less likely to be swayed by such calculations.  Given the elite appeal of such incentives, therefore, applying them to a country like Milosevic’s Serbia is problematic: those to whom the strategy is most specifically targeted are precisely the ones who  are using religious nationalism as a tool to stay in power and thus, since they have a vested interest in not discouraging ethnoreligious mobilization, will likely be the most difficult to persuade.  The rank-and-file, on the other hand, has little to gain and much to lose by continued warfare, and are therefore likely to be much more receptive to peaceful solutions.  Since their support of the extremists is in large part grounded in ethnoreligious rhetoric, however, they may view backing down from religious imperatives in response to strictly political and economic incentives as “selling out” for material gain.

Faced with such a situation, a Western policymaker has a choice between targeting societal elites (by ensuring, through promises of aid and threats of coercion, that cooperation with the West will be more beneficial to them personally than what they could have by defying the West) or targeting the elites’ support base (by providing assurances of their security and working through existing mediating institutions to appeal to their nobler side).

Even when the religiocultural factor is only rhetorical, it becomes an important factor to the extent that it is taken seriously by the “rank and file”.  An understanding of the realpolitik factors motivating a country’s élites is important, but it in no way obviates the need to know what is going on at the grassroots level.  Although religion’s role at the level of the élites was for the most part superficial, at the level of the masses it was taken quite seriously. [xxxiv]

Culpability of religious leaders

The recent war in Yugoslavia was not a religious war in the normal sense of the term.  Religion was clearly invoked as a rhetorical tool by all sides, but (with the possible exception of Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic) its role was strictly a means to a political end, not an end in itself.  As Warren Zimmermann, the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, points out,

The major proponents of destructive nationalism weren’t driven by religious faith.  Franjo Tudjman had been a communist most of his life; he converted to Catholicism when he turned to nationalist activities.  Milosevic, a lifelong communist, never, as far as I know, entered a Serbian Orthodox church except for blatant political activities.  I recall a visit he made for electoral reasons to a Serbian monastery on Mt. Athos in northern Greece.  Not even the official photographs could disguise the disconcerted and uncomfortable look on his face.[xxxv]

While it can be conceded that religion was not a central factor in the conflict, the argument that whatever role it did play was solely negative in nature is open to question.  The inquiry thus moves from causation to culpability; were religious leaders culpable both in what they did and what they did not do?

Before one can understand the present state of church-state relations in the former Yugoslavia, it is necessary to examine the intimate relationship between religion and the state in the Balkans across the centuries.[xxxvi]  Especially difficult to understand is the concept of “ethnoreligious” identity in which ethnic and religious traits co-mingle as one.  As Rosemont College religion scholar Paul Mojzes defines the issue,

[The conflicts in Yugoslavia] have distinct ethnoreligious characteristics because ethnicity and religion have become so enmeshed that they cannot be separated….The fusion or overlapping of ethnicity and religion is a well-known phenomenon in much of Eastern Europe, especially in the Balkans.  For centuries the church was the people and the people were the church….[In 1989,] the coalescence of ethnic and religious identification returned with such a vengeance that it is mandatory to use the single word “ethnoreligious.”[xxxvii]

A brief survey of Balkan history will help illuminate this point.

Byzantium and the “symphony” of church-state relations

The people of the Balkans (and especially the Serbs) inherited the collaborative relationship between church and state established by the Byzantine empire. The two were essentially intertwined in an almost “symphonic” relationship, working toward the same goal of achieving “a good harmony conferring whatever is useful for the human race.”[xxxviii]  As Justinian, perhaps the most famous Byzantine emperor, noted in his Corpus Iuris Civilis,

The greatest gifts given by God to men from His heavenly clemency are the priesthood and the imperium—the former ministering to divine things, but the latter presiding over and exhibiting diligence for human things.  Proceeding from one and the same source, the priesthood and the imperium equip human life.  Therefore nothing will be so keen for emperors as priests’ dignity, since priests pray to God for emperors themselves.[xxxix]

In practice, however, raisons d’état frequently trumped priestly dignity, and it was quite clear who conducted the symphony of church and state.  As Justinian noted in a rather detailed piece of ecclesiastical legislation regulating matters such as liturgy and the appointment of bishops,

God, through His good will towards men, has entrusted Us, how much more reason is there not for Us to compel the observance of the sacred canons, and Divine Laws, which have been promulgated for the safety of Our souls?…. We notify all ecclesiastics that if they should violate any of these provisions, they must render an account of their conduct on the terrible judgment Day of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ; and that We, when informed of these matters, shall not disregard them, and leave them unpunished.[xl]

As the Church increasingly became a subsidiary of the state, the precedent of using religion to “baptize” a ruler’s secular political aims was firmly established, and separating religious and political affairs (i.e., disassociating one’s religion from one’s nation or state) became increasingly difficult.

The Ottoman Empire and the Millet system

After the sacking of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, religion became the senior partner in this partnership.  Rather than attempting to homogenize their ethnically and religiously diverse empire, the Ottomans developed an elaborate system for managing religious and cultural diversity.  Under this millet system, the central functions of the state (security, foreign policy, etc.) were carried out by the Ottoman bureaucracy, while each cultural community was given significant autonomy in governing its own internal affairs.  To simplify matters, administrative control of each millet was assigned to that community’s religious leaders.  Throughout the centuries of Turkish occupation, the religious communities thus became the primary vehicle for the preservation and transmission of culture and national identity.  Even into the twentieth century, there has been a strong link between nationality and religion (although Titoist Yugoslavia weakened these ties to a considerable degree).  In the census of 1953, the last official survey that took religion into account, the correlation between national and religious identity was almost perfect.  In Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, 99.5 percent of Orthodox believers also considered themselves to be Serbs and 98.1 percent of Catholics considered themselves to be Croats.  In the distinctly ethnic republics, this pattern also held true.  95.2 percent of the Orthodox in Serbia considered themselves also to be Serbs, and 94.6 of Catholics in Croatia were also Croats.[xli]

The experience of Norwegian anthropologist Tone Bringa sheds light on the millet system’s legacy:

At the beginning of my stay in rural central Bosnia, when I was not known to people there, I was often asked, “What nacija [nation] are you?”.…The answer which made sense was not Norwegian, but Protestant.  It was only when people asked additional questions to clarify [that]…related to characteristics of the known Bosnian nacije of Muslim, Catholic, or Orthodox….[A] religious identity is also a social and cultural identity and in the Bosnian context has an ethnic context, since a person usually “inherits” his or her religious identity from his or her parents.”[xlii]

Romantic Era: The Rise of Serbian Nationalism

Within the Balkans, conflict between the Serbs and Slavic Muslims dates from the 14th and 15th centuries (about the time that the Slavic Muslims converted from Christianity[xliii] and assumed rulership over the Serbs and Croats). The elaborate mythology associated with the battle of Kosovo (1389)[xliv] was not actually constructed, however, until the Serb revolt against Ottoman occupation. Indeed, contemporary Serbian nationalism finds its roots in the Romantic period, during which Western Europe’s intelligentsia reacted to the rationalist internationalism of the preceding Age of Reason by affirming the legitimacy and primacy of national identity.  Interestingly, the Slavic non-Muslims'[xlv] struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire during this era was a cause célèbre among Europe’s Romantic poets and artists.  Once again, the sacred was enlisted in support of the nation’s secular aims.

Much of this construction was carried out by Serbian poet (and forefather of Radovan Karadzic) Vuk Karadzic (1787-1864), who compiled Serbian folk literature into four volumes which became “the canonical source and voice of the ‘national spirit.’”  As Haverford College religion scholar Michael Sells recounts,

As Vuk Karadzic carried out the canonization of the folk epic, selecting those poems that were to be identified with the Serb nation as a whole, Serb revolutionaries were moving Serbia toward independence…. The Kosovo legends became part of the Serbian revolutionary movement and those parts of the tradition especially meaningful for such a movement were preserved and emphasized.[xlvi]

In 1847, Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar II Petrović, Njegoš published the still-popular “Mountain Wreath,” a verse cycle which commemorates the Istraga Poturica (“the extermination of the Turkifiers”), a Christmas eve massacre of Slavic Muslims by the Serbs in the late eighteenth century.  This glorification of religious violence, when it was combined with the contrived parallels between Prince Lazar’s death and the crucifixion of Jesus (complete with Slavic Muslims assuming Judas Iscariot’s role as betrayer) that were also being formulated in the mid-nineteenth century, laid the foundation for a very significant distortion of truth that Serb nationalists gradually came to accept as truth itself.  Significantly, this clearly delineated conflict between “the children of light and the children of darkness” never occurred.  After the conquest of the Serbs by the Turks, Serbs (led by Serbian nobility) fought alongside Turks in support of the Turkish incursion into Europe.[xlvii]

Ethnoreligious Factors

Following Tito’s rapprochement with the Church, a “clerical-political underground” began to take root among many of the younger Orthodox clergy who sought to increase the Church’s influence in the political realm.  In the early 1980s, these clergy began calling attention to the plight of Serbs in Kosovo, who were experiencing discrimination at the hands of an increasingly restive Albanian majority, which itself was beginning to clash with the federal authorities over issues of autonomy.  The Serbian Orthodox Church, which had a large number of monasteries, churches, and other religious sites throughout Kosovo, was caught between the federal authority and the Albanians.  Its appeal to alleviate the Serbian plight did little to sooth these tensions, however: “It is no exaggeration to say that planned GENOCIDE [emphasis in original] is being perpetrated against the Serbian people in Kosovo!”[xlviii] The charge of genocide found its way into the general Serbian discourse on Kosovo, and only encouraged the nationalist Serbs in Kosovo to redouble their efforts to legitimate these concerns.

As nationalist forces began to rise in prominence, these clergy saw an opportunity to advance their goals by aligning with a member of the nomenklatura-turned-nationalist like Slobodan Milosevic, who, in turn, needed a religious sanction to buttress his political nationalism.  Although the younger clergy and Milosevic did not completely trust one another, more accommodating and generous state policies toward the SPC easily secured their support for his actions.[xlix]  Furthermore, the nationalist ideology addressed the religious and cultural issues that were explicitly ignored by the Communists, suggesting that even if the nationalists were not perfect they were better than what had gone before.  In addition, Milosevic claimed to share the SPC’s concern about the plight of the Serbs in non-Serbian areas, thus appealing directly to its traditional pastoral role as preserver of the Serbian nation throughout the long centuries of Turkish and Communist occupation.[l]

“Fall from Grace”

At the same time, this marriage of convenience between the SPC and Milosevic did not alter the fact that many priests were deeply opposed to his socialist orientation and actually felt they had much more in common with the Bosnian Serbs, who, despite their glaring faults, were non-Communist and explicitly pro-Orthodox.[li]  As early as May of 1992, the SPC leadership called for Milosevic’s resignation, attacking his “godless” regime for, among other offenses, “closing their eyes to crimes” committed by Serbian paramilitary groups in Bosnia.[lii] The tensions were heightened in 1994 when Milosevic vetoed an SPC-sponsored bill to strengthen restrictions on abortion.[liii] When Milosevic began to act in accordance with his own political interests at the expense of his stated loyalty to the Serb diaspora, he dispelled any remaining illusions the SPC may have had that he was a necessary evil in defending the Serbian people.  From 1996 to 2000, increasingly large segments of the SPC opposed Milosevic either openly or implicitly.

The Islamic Dimension

If any faction in the war could be said to be “victimized,” it was the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina.  As the ethnic group that most identified with the appellation of “Yugoslav” and one of its most secular groups, it had perhaps the most at stake in the second Yugoslavia.  Further, it was militarily least prepared for a civil war, sandwiched between heavily armed Serbia-Montenegro and separatist Croatia.  To suggest that Islamic leaders were culpable in mobilizing the nationalist fervor of their constituencies is to exaggerate the truth.  At the same time, the ethnic Muslims unwittingly exacerbated the situation in two significant ways.   First, they failed to sidestep the public relations traps set for them by their opponents’ propaganda machines, thus playing into the hands of those who were intent on starting a war.  Even innocent actions were often portrayed as outright aggression by the nationalist presses.  As the weakest party, discretion would have dictated toning down any expressions of national identity which, while innocuous on the face of it, could be read as aggressive when viewed through the existing prisms of suspicion.  Their defensive actions against Serbian nationalists were, in turn, used by their enemies to corroborate unfounded accusations of an Islamist conspiracy against the Serbs.

Second, Muslims understandably reacted to their opponents’ religious nationalism by assuming a much more aggressive Islamist posture, possibly jeopardizing future peace in the process.  The Serbian nationalist tendency to invoke religion in support of its war aims essentially backfired.  Rather than curbing whatever Islamist threat was posed by a mostly secularized, nominally Muslim population, the religious rhetoric provoked a reaction from throughout the Muslim world.  Fresh from dealing the now-defunct Soviet Union a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, scores of foreign mujahideen flooded into Bosnia, their noses attuned to the scent of Muslim-Christian bloodshed.  Within Bosnia, moreover, religion-based violence radicalized the nominal Muslims.  The reaction of the Muslims at the rank-and-file level is typified by this statement from a young Bosnian Muslim soldier:

I never thought of myself as a Muslim.  I don’t know how to pray, I never went to mosque, I’m European, like you.  I do not want the Arab world to help us, I want Europe to help us.  But now, I do have to think about myself as a Muslim, not in a religious way, but as a member of a people.  Now we are faced with obliteration, I have to understand what it is about me and my people they wish to obliterate.[liv]

The combination of religious hostility against them and apparent indifference from the West led many Bosnian Muslims to seek refuge among their fellow Muslims and—more significantly—to adopt a more orthodox adherence to Islamic faith and practice.  A good example of this phenomenon was the adoption of Islamic law by the élite Bosnian unit known as the Black Swans, involving, among other practices, two hours of daily religious instruction by Islamic chaplains.[lv] The efforts by some Muslim clerics in Bosnia to pass laws implementing Islamic cultural prohibitions on issues ranging from mixed marriages to the consumption of pork and alcohol to the playing of traditional “Serbian” music on the radio illustrate the extent to which the war served to radicalize the Muslim population.[lvi]  The multiethnic foundations of the Bosnian Federation (the Muslim and Croatian part of BiH) were profoundly shaken by fears of an increasing tendency toward hard-line Islam.  In February of 1995, the five non-Muslim members of the seven-member Bosnian presidency publicly decried the “ideologization and the negative instrumentalization of religion” by Bosnian Muslims, as specifically demonstrated by the Islamic trappings and battle cries of the 3,000-strong Seventh Muslim Brigade.[lvii]

Religion’s Role in Peacemaking

Beyond statements signed by the leaders of the three prominent faith traditions calling for an end to the conflict and a cessation of ethnic cleansing, religion’s role in ending the hostilities was negligible at best.  In Bosnia, as in so many other wars of communal identity, religion was effectively co-opted by the forces of nationalism and used both as a mobilizing vehicle and a badge of identity.

In a 1999 interview with Radio Free Europe, Hiermonk Sava from Decani Monastery in Kosovo described the efforts which the SPC was taking toward peace.  He provided three explanations for these efforts’ failure in swaying the Serbian people toward a more peaceful outlook.  First, Milosevic’s control of the media (and the public sphere as a whole) inhibited the spread of the SPC’s message and prolonged the extremists’ dominance; in fact, Sava argued, SPC statements expressing critical attitudes toward the Milosevic regime were often misquoted by official media sources so that they sounded like uncritical endorsements.  Second, the lack of centralization within the SPC made it difficult for the central leadership to crack down upon SPC clergy acting inappropriately.  Third, the SPC was so weakened by Communist rule and post-Communist manipulation that it was often unable to mount an effective challenge to Milosevic’s agenda.[lviii]   Many nationalists “celebrate the Serbianness of their Church but reject the anti-war posture of the Church hierarchy.”[lix]  As James Cairns, the Sarajevo project director for the World Conference on Religion and Peace notes, the peripheral role of religious leaders in starting the conflict severely limits their influence in stopping it.[lx]

This explanation does not square, however, with the commonly cited SPC condemnation of Milosevic’s agreement to the Dayton Accords; at Dayton, the agreement that was signed significantly undercut the interests of the Bosnian Serbs, who had (in a deal overseen by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch himself) given Milosevic the authority to negotiate on their behalf.  While there is some truth to the assertion that this condemnation means that elements within the SPC were even more nationalistic than what was officially sanctioned from Belgrade, much of this apparent collaboration comes from a genuine and open-eyed pastoral concern.  As the Holy Synod of the SPC stated on 5 November 1994, “[We] do not consider ourselves identical with the governments on either side of the Drina River but we cannot separate ourselves from our, although sinful, nevertheless still a People of God in the ecumenical family of peoples, but stay with them on the cross upon which they are crucified.”[lxi]  In view of the deep and legitimate Serbian concerns about Islamic rule in Bosnia and Kosovo, the SPC gave conditional support to the Serbian political leadership—not because it wholly agreed with it, but rather out of pastoral concern for the Serbian people.  While there can be little doubt that the outcome of this decision played into the nationalists’ hands, the fact that SPC support began to fade as the truth became more apparent suggests that their motives were not as inappropriate as has been alleged.       Subsequent to the Dayton Accords, a sustained effort was mounted by the World Conference on Religion and Peace to bring Bosnia’s religious  leaders together in formulating and adhering to a common moral agenda.  With valuable assistance from others, including Mercy Corps International, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, a Statement of Shared Moral Commitment was consummated (see Attachment 1) and a secretariat established to assist in implementing its provisions.

The faith-based cooperation that has subsequently taken place between the four religious communities (Catholic, Orthodox, Islamic, and Jewish) has highlighted the important role of interreligious dialogue as an ingredient in post-conflict reconciliation.  For its practical, collaborative prospects on a number of fronts (e.g. sponsoring dialogue among local clerics in BiH municipalities and pressing for legal reforms relating to religious property, assembly, and expression) and its symbolic role as one of the country’s strongest and most autonomous inter-ethnic institutions, the Council has received widespread acclaim.

That said, the Council is currently struggling with a broad range of highly complex issues, including (1) the reconstruction of religious monuments in ethnically-cleansed cities, (2) the return of clerical leaders of demographic minorities to their homes and places of worship, (3) inadequate revenues to provide needed social services, (4) inadequate protection of basic religious freedoms at the local level, and (5) the restitution of expropriated and nationalized property.  The challenges are never-ending, but so too has been the commitment of the Council in meeting them.

Another effort, among many, that deserves mention is an initiative of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, which for more than four years has been conducting conflict resolution training workshops for religious clergy and laity from the involved faith traditions in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia.  Although these workshops began while the conflict was still raging, they were undertaken without any expectation that they would have any effect on the then-existing hostilities.  Rather, they were initiated to plant the seeds for longer term reconciliation (out of a conviction that no military or diplomatic solution could ever break the cycle of revenge).  The underlying premise was that unless a spiritual component can be introduced into international politics that gets to the heart of forgiveness and reconciliation, history will be doomed to an endless repetition of returning violence for violence.

The workshops have been conducted at three levels, with the first level dedicated to helping participants overcome their sense of victimhood (both individually and collectively), the second to conveying the skills of peacemaking, and the third to building community across republic lines and addressing the systemic problems within each republic’s social system that contribute to ethnic animosity.  By next year—barring the unforeseen—the project will achieve its immediate goal of establishing an indigenous, religious-based peacemaking capability firmly anchored in an NGO in each of the three republics.

In looking ahead even further, it is important to recognize that moves by the West to bring all of the religious factions together to smooth over their differences, as a prerequisite to restoring multi-ethnic harmony, are unlikely to succeed.  While there are certainly a number of commonalities between these religions on questions of social ethics, the frequent Western contention that their differences are insignificant ignores reality and will in all probability produce counterproductive results.[lxii] As is commonly noted, religious and ethnopolitical identity in the Balkans are intimately linked to the extent that religious conversion is viewed as both religious apostasy and political treason.  Consequently, any inter-religious effort that treats religious differences as insignificant is likely to be regarded as politically suspect and will retain its credibility only among those who are already predisposed to inter-religious cooperation.  Rather than exhorting religious people to stop fighting because their differences do not matter, it will be far more productive to work within each tradition to show that peace is necessary precisely because their beliefs do matter.  Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox alike should be counseled to pick up the gauntlet laid down by the Koranic admonition to the “people of the book” that they “compete with each other in good works” (Sura 5:48).  By the same token, the validity of the Christian message is not demonstrated by victory on the battlefield but by its expression of supernatural love:  “Love your enemies and do good to those who do you harm” (Matthew 5:44).

In practical terms, it is inherently more fruitful to work toward peace within, rather than across, religious traditions.   Particularly in a conflict where religion is a major theme, an embattled religious group seems more likely to be receptive to its own co-religionists than outsiders; this is especially the case if their foreign brethren tangibly demonstrate solidarity with them even as they continue to call (and work) for peace.  Such a display would help to break the false equation of religion with nationality and remind the belligerents of the need to think in transnational terms.

Lessons Learned

A number of helpful insights can be drawn from the Yugoslav conflict.  First, religious considerations were not the only, or even the most important, factors in the conflict.  But the fact that former Communist élites, despite their previously observed contempt for all things religious, still bothered to stoke the fires of religious nationalism demonstrates that religion was enough of a motivator at the grassroots level to merit their condescension.  In light of this, the international community should not let this issue slip from view.

Second, efforts to bring religious communities together must include a focus at the grassroots level.  At the same time that rural nationalism engendered a deep loyalty to traditional religious values, it also created a distrust of religious establishments.  As University of Washington political scientist Sabrina Petra Ramet points out, in Serbia “nationalists celebrate the Serbianness of their Church but reject the anti-war posture of the Church hierarchy.”[lxiii]  For any religion-based solution to have a lasting impact, it must be convincing to the average layperson.

Third, in societies where no normative consensus transcends ethnoreligious lines, other ethnoreligious groups frequently come to be characterized by their “otherness” rather than their common humanity. In the resulting zero-sum game, a costly victory is often seen to be preferable to a bloodless and mutually beneficial compromise.  As two experts on the Balkans have noted, “the breakdown of a community presupposes that for at least some of the members there is no longer any basis for normative consensus or any joint frameworks worth maintaining.  Rejection of common goals, procedures, or rules of conduct has been a very part of the process of dissolution in the Yugoslav case.”[lxiv]  In such a situation, strict adherence to procedural democracy is a mistake, since any inkling of the common good will fade into the ether under the onslaught of a tyrannically disposed (and virtually omnipotent) majority.  It is the fear of this eventuality that continually drives ethnoreligious minorities to seek their own states.  As Vladimir Gligorov, the son of contemporary Macedonia’s first president, sardonically observed, “Why should I be a minority in your state when you can be a minority in mine?”[lxv]  In such a case, equality of representation (“one person, one vote”) must frequently be sacrificed to keep the political process from becoming, in the words of Plato’s Thrasymachus, merely a legitimation for “the will of the stronger.”  While significant work has already been done on consociational political arrangements as a means of channeling communal conflict, much more needs to be done to design solutions that are more in keeping with a given group’s ethnic and religious sensibilities.[lxvi]

Fourth, with the exception of the nationalist intelligentsia and their political counterparts, who could be said to have a vested interest in conflict and “ethnic cleansing” almost for its own sake, one gets the definite impression that most of the people on each side are driven by fear, not hatred or aggression.  This is reflected in the fact that many of the unquestionably aggressive actions took on the quality of preemptive strikes (e.g., if early action was not taken to address a threat, worse things would have happened to oneself).

Fifth, not all religious leaders bought into the religious-nationalist synthesis.  Of those who did, moreover, the dominant majority did so because they were forced to choose between two inappropriate options: either standing by as the people they were charged to shepherd were exterminated or becoming an unwitting accessory to genocide.  Regardless of their respective miscalculations or moral shortcomings, most religious leaders were on the side of peace and justice— and, while they will quarrel about the precise meaning of those terms,  most of them will ground their definitions in a right ordering of one’s love for God and for one’s neighbor.  Given the international community’s difficulty in keeping ethnoreligiously motivated “rogue states” under control, it should not compound its problem by driving its natural allies into the arms of the demagogues who find it strategically efficacious to portray themselves as the only defenders of the religious leaders’ flocks.[lxvii] Rather than writing religious leaders off as a part of the problem, it is both possible and necessary to empower them to become an integral part of the solution through the following avenues of assistance:

(1) Information – In the highly polarized atmosphere created by the breakup of Yugoslavia, each republic’s government-controlled media produced its own version of the truth.  The accounts varied so radically that it caused one to wonder whether or not they were referring to the same conflict.  As U.S. Catholic Conference analyst Gerard Powers notes,

The ubiquitous war propaganda spewed out by government-controlled media in each country and sometimes unsubstantiated allegations by international organizations and human rights groups led religious leaders, like many others in these countries, to disbelieve accusations of atrocities and to give their own governments the benefit of the doubt.[lxviii]

It should thus come as no surprise that the Serbian Orthodox hierarchy would place more stock in the Serbian government’s media than in that of Bosnia or Croatia.  As a result, it was easy for the state-controlled media to feed them precisely whatever was needed to keep them docile.

Providing balanced information to religious leaders in such settings could profoundly enhance their resistance to ethnoreligious demagoguery.  Given the natural distrust for foreign sources that a highly polarized environment produces, broadcasts from the Voice of America or other official channels are probably of limited utility.  Existing relationships of trust between religious leaders in a rogue state and their counterparts in the diaspora can sometimes provide a more trustworthy conduit for accurate reporting.

(2) Confidence-building: Once religious leaders begin to hear—through channels they trust—about the atrocities committed by their own side, a tension is created between their visceral loyalties to blood and soil and their allegiance to a higher law.  In an ideal world, they would take their new information at face value and reject what they have heard from their state-controlled media.  In reality, however, it is difficult to wholly accept information (even from a reliable source) that directly contradicts what everyone else in their society believes and is telling them.  This is particularly the case if the actions of the international community at the time are insensitive to the religious imperatives of the nationality in question.

A dramatic case in point was the recent NATO decision to bomb Serbia on Orthodox Easter.  One could have arguably bombed twice as much the day before and/or the day after, but it was a decision the Serbs will never forget.[lxix]  In immediate terms, it gave added credibility to the Milosevic regime’s pretense of waging a religious war against the forces of Islam and its anti-Christian advocates in NATO.  As Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II maintained shortly before the Easter bombings, if NATO bombed on Easter it would demonstrate that  “they are not Christians; they are barbarians.”[lxx]  Further exacerbating the situation was President Clinton’s earlier determination not to attack Iraq during Ramadan because such an action would be “profoundly offensive to the Muslim world.”[lxxi]

To convince clergy who have a pastoral concern for those of a particular nationality that one means their flock no harm, it is essential that one remain sensitive to their religious and cultural underpinnings.  Neglect of these factors can result—as it did in this case—in the international community inadvertently playing into the nationalist propaganda.

Sixth, to neutralize the demagogues’ ability to manipulate religion to  inappropriate purposes, the international community must do all it can to address the legitimate concerns voiced by religious leaders.  To do otherwise is to force those who would otherwise be natural allies to make the difficult choice between siding with extreme nationalists for the sake of their people or siding with the enemies of their people for the sake of theological purity.  By the same token, appeals to religious leaders should never be couched in terms of moral and religious equalizing (i.e., “all religions are just different roads up the same mountain”).  As Powers observes, “The best way to counter religious extremism or manipulation of religion is with strengthened, more authentic religion, not weakened religion.”[lxxii]

It is also the case that using religion instrumentally as a means of achieving peace rather than encouraging people to work for peace as a natural outgrowth of their religious convictions is as problematic in the long run as the religious appeals made by a demagogue.  Such a misappropriation causes the advocate of peace to lose the moral high ground by ignoring his or her legitimate claim to be representing a less distorted orthopraxy than that being proclaimed in the streets by political figures.  In the absence of such a truth claim, it is highly unlikely that a counterintuitive foreign interpretation will win out over an indigenous interpretation which speaks to an ethnic population fearing for its safety—nor should it.


For a religion-based peace initiative to bear longterm fruit, it must come from the religious leaders (whether clergy or laity) within the religious tradition in question, and it must be genuine.  This is a difficult concept for Western policymakers who are accustomed to applying whatever carrots or sticks may be needed to convince other political actors to do what they want.  In dealing with religious leaders, however, the needs are different.  On the one hand, the carrots in a policymaker’s toolbox, which are mostly economic in nature, are not legitimate incentives for religious leaders; on the other, threatening the use of sticks to convince a religious leader to change his or her teaching is simply inappropriate and infringes upon religious freedom.

At the same time, it is increasingly apparent that religion and politics cannot be completely isolated from one another.  Some interchange between the two is therefore both necessary and appropriate.  When, as is inevitable, disagreement arises between Western policymakers and indigenous religious leaders, it is essential to recall that when the state gets involved in religious affairs it should be the junior partner (as the church should be to the state in explicitly political affairs).  Such an arrangement only makes sense when one realizes that the state is intervening in areas which are much more familiar and much more important to an indigenous religious leader than to a foreign diplomat.[lxxiii]  In a setting as delicate and as context-laden as the religious aspects of a mobilized ethnoreligious group, apparently minor errors can lead to disaster; such a minefield is better navigated by a shepherd caring for his (or her) flock than by a faceless Weberian bureaucrat.

Among other factors, enlisting the cooperation of religious leaders requires a resort to a higher truth, e.g. through appealing to the same behavioral norms called for in their sacred texts.  An example of this could involve making available to these leaders credible information about atrocities committed by their “flock” and seeking to stimulate theological reflection about the implications of that information.  Such a process should be characterized by deference, not condescension; exhortation, not coercion; and dialogue, not intimidation.

There are undoubtedly other lessons that can be drawn from the Bosnian experience.  Determining what they might be, however, could pose a significant challenge in light of the multi-faceted nuances and complexities.  An even greater challenge, though, is that of assimilating the more apparent lessons listed above in ways that can help prevent future conflict.  Meeting this latter challenge will likely require an effective coupling of astute diplomacy with the transcendental potential of religious reconciliation.  Anything less, in all probability, will only lead to an endless continuation of the cycle of revenge.



[i] William Oscar Johnson, “They’re off to a Flying Start,” Sports Illustrated 60.8 (20 February 1984): p.16.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Stewart Powell, “Winter Olympics’ Real Winner is Sarajevo,” U.S. News & World Report (13 February 1984): p.35.

[iv] Warren Zimmermann, Origins of a Catastrophe (New York: Times Books, 1996), p.4.

[v] Indeed, a 1985 survey conducted found that only 17 percent of Bosnians characterized themselves as religious believers (Zimmermann, p.210).

[vi] P.J. O’Rourke as qtd. in Peter Berger, “Secularism in Retreat,” National Interest 46 (Winter 1996-1997), pp.11-12.

[vii] For a more developed version of the discussion to follow, see Jonathan C. Eastvold, “’A Heavenly Kingdom and Not an Earthly Kingdom: A Religio-Historical Reinterpretation of the Yugoslav Conflict,” Unpublished senior thesis, Wheaton College, Spring 1999.

[viii] Qtd. in Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996), p.142.

[ix] Srdjan Vrcan, “Religion and Churches and the Post-Yugoslav War,” Religion and Nationalism, ed. J. Coleman and M. Tomka (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1995), p.65. Qtd. in Gerard Powers,“Religion, conflict and prospects for reconciliation in Bosnia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia,” Journal of International Affairs 50.1 (Summer 1996), pp. 221-252.

[x] Radovan Karadzic, personal interview.  In Pogledi, 12 November 1993, in FBIS-EEU-93-228, 30 November 1993, p.41.  Qtd. in Norman Cigar, Genocide in Bosnia: The Policy of “Ethnic Cleansing” in Eastern Europe (College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 1995), p.101.

[xi] Mitja Velikonja, “Liberation Mythology: The Role of Mythology in Fanning War in the Balkans,” in Paul Mojzes, Ed., Religion and the War in Bosnia (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), p.38.

[xii] Zimmermann, p.25.

[xiii] Richard Holbrooke, To End a War (New York: Random House, 1998), p.24.

[xiv] Christopher Bennett, Yugoslavia’s Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course, and Consequences (New York: New York University, 1995), p.63.

[xv] Bennett, p.63.

[xvi] Ramet ‘Nationalism’ 77.

[xvii] Cf. Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Writer’s Union.  As Ramet reports, many Serbian intellectuals “[longed] for a return to village life as the only authentic life” (Vreme (1 March 1993), trans. In Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report (Eastern Europe), 24 March 1993: p.57.  Qtd. In Ramet, “Nationalism,” p.77).

[xviii] Sabrina Petra Ramet, “Nationalism and the Idiocy of the Countryside: the case of Serbia,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 19:1 (January 1996): p.71.

[xix] Lenard Cohen, Broken Bonds: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), pp.156-7.

[xx] Sells, p.73.

[xxi] Eastvold, p.29.

[xxii] See Robert Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993) and Dame Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (New York: The Viking Press, 1941).

[xxiii] Sarajevo is one of the few places in Europe over the past 800 years where Jews have never been evicted.

[xxiv] Darko Tanasković, “Why is Islamic Radicalization in the Balkans Being Covered Up?” Eurobalkans 15 (Summer 1994), p.35.  Qtd. in Cohen, p. 60.

[xxv] Pešić and Mostov, p.38.

[xxvi] Velikonja, p.33.

[xxvii] Francine Friedman, “The Bosnian Muslim National Question,” in Paul Mojzes, Ed., Religion and the War in Bosnia (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), p.2.

[xxviii] Lev Kreft, Estetika in Poslanstvo [Esthetics and Mission] (Ljubljana: Znanstveno in publicisticno sredisce, 1994), pp.144-146.

[xxix] Cohen, p. 49.  See also Esad Ćimić, Socijalistićko društvo I religija (Sarajevo: “Svjetlost,” 1966), pp. 167-169.

[xxx] Orthodox Serbia, with its connections to Russia, uses the Cyrillic alphabet; Catholic Croatia and Slovenia, on the other hand, use the Roman alphabet employed throughout Western and Central Europe.

[xxxi] Cohen 59.

[xxxii] Esad Ćimić, “Okrugli stol-‘Što je vjerski rat,” in Ivan Grubišć, ed., Konfesije i rat, p. 294.

[xxxiii] Dean G. Pruitt and Jeffrey Z. Rubin, Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate,and Settlement (New York: Random House, 1986), p.94.

[xxxiv] As Misha Glenny recounts his conversation with a Serb policeman outside Sarajevo,

He was not a man of evil.  On the contrary, he explained how he found it very difficult to shoot at the other side of his village, because he knew everybody who lived there.  But the war had somehow arrived and he had to defend his home.  The man was confused and upset by the events, but he now perceived the [Muslim] Green Berets and the [Croat] Ustashas to be a real threat to his family.

“We cannot let them form an Islamic state here,” he said with genuine passion.  “Are you sure they want to?” I asked him.  “Of course they want to.  I don’t understand why you people outside don’t realize that we are fighting for Europe against a foreign religion.”

Misha Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War,(London: Penguin, 1992), p. 170.

[xxxv] Zimmermann, p.210.

[xxxvi] In light of the complexity of the issues, this chapter will focus on religion’s role in Serbian nationalism, with incidental attention to other ethnoreligious groups as they help to illuminate the major focus.

[xxxvii] Paul Mojzes, Yugoslavian Inferno (New York:  Continuum, 1994), pp.125-7.

[xxxviii] Justinian, Novella 6 Praefatio.  Corpus iuris civilis 3.35-36.  Ed.  Theodor Mommsen, Paul Krüger, Rudolf Schoell, and Wilhelm Kroll.  3 vols.  Berlin: Repr.  Hildesheim, 1993.  Qtd.  in Lester Field, Jr., Liberty, Dominion, and the Two Swords: On the Origins of Western Political Theology (180-398) (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), p.255.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Justinian, Novella, CXXXVII, translated by S.P. Scott in The Civil Law (Cincinnati, Ohio: 1932), Vol. XVII, pp. 152-156. Reprinted in Leon Bernard and Theodore B. Hodges, eds. Readings in European History, (New York: Macmillan, 1958), pp. 57-58.

[xli] Popis stanovništva 1953, Knjiga I, vitalna I etni?a obele^zja (Belgrade: Savezni zavod za statistiku, 1959), pp. 278-279.  Cited in. Cohen, pp. 45-46.

[xlii] Tone Bringa, Being Muslim the Bosnian Way: Identity, Religion [?], and Community in a Central Bosnian Village (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), p.21.

[xliii] The original religious affiliation of the Slavic Muslims is a question of considerable political delicacy.  According to the Serbs, the Muslims were originally Orthodox Serbs; according to the Croats, they were originally Catholic Croats; in addition, they have been identified with the Bogumils, adherents to an offshoot of Christianity denounced as a heresy by both East and West.

[xliv] In the wake of the war between NATO and Serbia over Kosovo, the story has been retold enough that it does not need to be repeated here.  For further information see Tim Judah, The Serbs:  History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), esp. 29-47.

[xlv] At that time, Western Europeans characterized as “Greeks” all of the Christian peoples of the Balkans.

[xlvi] Sells 38.

[xlvii] In fact, cavalry under the command of Stephen Lazarevich, a son of Prince Lazar, was instrumental in helping the Turks defeat a crusader army commanded by King Sigismund of Hungary.[xlvii]  Rather than self-sacrificially contributing to the defense of “Christian Europe,” Serbs actively assisted the aggressors.  While, given the political realities of life under Ottoman occupation, this is not necessarily a stain on the character of the Serbian nation, it does deal a decisive blow to Serbian nationalists’ laments of unappreciated martyrdom.

[xlviii] “Appeal by the Clergy” in Gordana Filipović, Kosovo: Past and Present (Belgrade, Review of International Affairs, 1989), pp. 355-360. Qtd. in Michael Sells, “Serbian Religious Nationalism, Christoslavism, and the Genocide in Bosnia, 1992-1995,” in Paul Mojzes, Ed., Religion and the War in Bosnia (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998), pp. 201-202.

[xlix] Cohen, p.56.

[l] Ibid.

[li] Cohen, pp. 71-72.

[lii] Cohen, p. 71.

[liii] Paul Hockenos, “Church is among few allies of Bosnian Serbs,” National Catholic Reporter 31.32 (16 June 1995) , p.11.

[liv] Ed Vulliamy, Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), p. 65..

[lv] Cohen, p.69.

[lvi] Cohen, p.70.

[lvii] Foreign Broadcast Information Service-Eastern Europe-95-032 (16 February 1995), p.29-30.

[lviii] Hiermonk Sava, “There is place for all in Kosovo but we depend on extremists” [Radio Free Europe interview], (, 9 December 1998.

[lix] Ramet “Nationalism,” pp. 78-79.

[lx] James L. Cairns, “Interrupted Dialogue,” The Christian Century (21-28 April 1999), p.440.

[lxi] Sveti arhijerejski sabor SPC [Holy Synod of the SOC], Politika (5 November 1994).

[lxii] One example of this approach is provided by Marko Oršolić in his description of the Sarajevo-based “International Center for Promoting Interreligious Dialogue, Justice, and Peace, “Zayedno” [Together],” which brings religious leaders from the main traditions together in order to explicitly “counter the religious separation of people based on an erroneous notion of God, who undoubtedly in Judaism, Christianity (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) and Islam is one and the same” (263).  To this end, he calls for the use of “an objective contextual hermeneutics which is more important than the continuous affirmations of religious hierarchies about things that belong to the essence of all religions” (264).  Marko Oršolć, “Multireligious and Intercultural Center ‘Zayedno,’” in Paul Mojzes, Ed., Religion and the War in Bosnia (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1998).

[lxiii] Ramet, pp.78-79.

[lxiv] Pešć and Mostov, p.39.

[lxv] Qtd in Zimmermann, p.212.

[lxvi] For examples of existing work, see Kenneth McRae, ed., Consociational Democracy: Political Accommodation in Segmented Societies (1974) or Arend Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Perspective (1971).

[lxvii] Cf. S.J. Tambiah, “Ethnic Conflict in the World Today,” American Ethnologist 16:2:343.  Cited in Larry A. Dunn, “The Roles of Religion in Conflicts in the Former Yugoslavia,”

[lxviii] Gerard F. Powers, “Religion, Conflict, and Prospects for Peace in Bosnia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia,” in Mojzes, Religion and the War in Bosnia, p. 240.

[lxix] As the day on which Christ’s victory over death is celebrated, Easter is considered by Orthodox Serbs to be the climax of the Church year.

[lxx] Greg Gaut, “NATO was blind to religion’s role in Balkans,”  National Catholic Reporter 35.33 (2 July 1999), p.20.

[lxxi] William Jefferson Clinton, “Address to the Nation,” 16 December 1998.

[lxxii] Powers, p.245.

[lxxiii] In this regard, although it was intended for domestic application—specifically relating to the constitutionality of state-sponsored salary increases for teachers in nonpublic schools—the tripartite test set forth by the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971 provides useful guidance for religious monitoring overseas:

  1. A policy or action must have a secular purpose as its primary motivation
  2. “Its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion,” and
  3. It must not “foster ‘an excessive…entanglement with religion’” on the part of the United States government.

In cases where it looks questionable as to whether such a test can be met, consideration should be given to handling the situation through the influential NGO sector rather than the traditional “track one” channels.



Chapter by Douglas Johnston and Jonathan Eastvold in Religion and Peacebuilding. New York: SUNY Press.
January 2004

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