Dialogue or Death

The Religious Communities in the Balkans

An estimated quarter of a million people were killed in the Balkan wars in the early 1990's. A further two million were driven from their homes. Their religion or ethnic origin was often the factor that determined whether they lived or died. The Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation has tried to bring together representatives of the different Balkan religions. Klaus Dahmann reports


​​The Franciscan friar Marko Orsolic from Sarajevo is one of the pioneers in the dialogue amongst religions in the Balkan region. In 1991, before the war had even begun, he founded the International Centre for the Promotion of Inter-Religious Dialogue in his home town. After hostilities had ceased, bigger projects followed: in 1997, an international initiative led to the formation of the International Multireligious and Intercultural Centre (IMIC).

Yet, although Osolic is convinced that the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina face a choice between dialogue and death, he also feels that many clerics still lack the will to participate in a real exchange of views and ideas. The reluctance of these religious leaders, says Orsolic, stands in sharp contrast to the attitude of the average citizen:

"In everyday life here, people of various faiths are capable of getting along well; they have developed this capacity for dialogue over the course of centuries. But when it comes to the religious superstructure - theologians and so on - the situation is really much worse than we would prefer to admit."

According to the Franciscan Bosnia-expert Xavier Bougarel, the unwillingness of many religious leaders to engage in dialogue stems from the role they played during the Bosnian war:

"At that time, the Croatian Catholic Church, the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Bosnian Muslim community were trying to use the national question in order to restore both their former privileges and their previous influence over the respective sections of the population. The Serbian Patriarch Pavle I, the Croatian Cardinal Franjo Kuharic and the head of the Islamic community in Bosnia, Dr. Mustafa Ceric, all instrumentalised politics in the same way religion was instrumentalised by Franjo Tudjman, Slobodan Milosevic and Alija Izetbegovic."

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German NGO with close links to the SPD, invited representatives of the various religions to Berlin, where they discussed the co-existence of Muslims and Christians in the Balkans. It soon became apparent that these church leaders are still a long way from finding a common basis for communication.

The Serbian Orthodox theologian Milan Vukomanovic contributed only historical details to the discussion; while the Catholic Church's representative, Niko Ikic, cited numerous verses from the Koran in order to support his view that dialogue with Muslims is barely possible.

This led to protests from Holm Sundhaussen, an Eastern Europe specialist based in Berlin, who feels it is pointless to hold theological debates in such a situation; for the conflict between the religious communities, he says, has nothing to do with religion itself:

"When the average person (so to speak) is bombarded with these kinds of quotations from the Bible and the Koran, they mean nothing to him - and most of the theological problems that are being discussed here mean even less".

Still, as Ahmet Alibasic, representative of the Muslim community, sees it, one has to begin somewhere; and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he feels, there is simply no alternative to such inter-denominational dialogue. Nonetheless, he warned against harbouring any illusions:

"Some things just can't be solved by means of dialogue, and no-one should be surprised by this fact. All too often, great expectations lead to great disappointments. This very recent conflict can't simply be forgotten. I believe that the parties to the Balkans war were not equally matched, and I find it immoral to expect the victims to take part in a dialogue with those who were responsible for the violence."

Alibasic complained above all that the buzzword "dialogue" had now degenerated into a mere business, with the international community staging discussion forums as an end in themselves; indeed, he claimed, they weren't even much interested in where these talks were held, the main priority apparently being that they take place at all. As the Berlin Conference drew to a close, his summary was accordingly critical of the international community:

"I think there is pressure from outside, and I believe that many activities subsumed under the phrase 'the process of dialogue' are imposed externally on the participants. The outcome speaks for itself: so many meetings, so few results."

Klaus Dahmann

&copy DEUTSCHE WELLE/DW-WORLD.DE/Qantara.de 2002

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

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