Peaceful Life in a Land of War: Religion & the Balkan Conflicts

August 13th, 2012 1:59 pm

Janko Stefanov

Living in peace with each other

When I was a child, I spent most of my days at my grandmother’s house in a small mountain village located in Central Bulgaria, where both Christians and Muslims were living peacefully in an atmosphere of great respect, sharing their happiness and pain each day. When the Christians celebrated Easter, they used to give red-painted eggs and sweetbread to the Muslims. The Muslims, from their side, used to treat Christians with different candies and pancakes for Ramadan. My grandmother herself was a Muslim and she couldn’t even spend a day without having a cup of tea and a nice chat with the old woman next door to us, who was an Orthodox Christian. They used to help each other in whatever kind of work they did.

Later on, I started to go to school in the nearby town, where I was born and where my parents now live. When I started to study history, the new things that I learned deeply shocked me. I understood that Bulgaria was 500 years under Ottoman (Turkish) occupation and that thousands of people were slain because they didn’t want to change their faith. My head was straining to find an answer – I just couldn’t make out how the people in my grandmother’s village could stand each other. A scary picture revealed in front of me – the land that I’m living on is literally soaked with the blood of thousands men and women. In the 20th century alone, the Balkan area had suffered three major internal wars, two world wars, of which the first one was actually caused in the area, and numerous other conflicts. In 1999, when the war in neighbouring Serbia broke out, I started to question myself; what was the actual cause for all that hatred and death devastating the land just few hundred kilometres west from where I live? Great sorrow had overtaken me after I read the list of the more than eighty holy sites (monasteries, churches and chapels) in Kosovo and Metochia that were destroyed during the war for Kosovo’s independence. Why did that happen? Was it because of religion? Then, how can Muslims and Christians in my village live in perfect harmony and friendship? Later on, I found the answer that I longed for so much.

A Brief Introduction to the Balkan Area

The Balkans (or Balkan Peninsula) is a geographical, political and cultural region of south-eastern Europe. The region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains, which run through the centre of Bulgaria and into eastern Serbia. The region covers an area of 550,000 km2 with a population of about 55 million people. The name Balkan comes from a Turkish word meaning “wooded mountains”. The ancient Greek’s named the Balkan Peninsula the “Peninsula of Haemus” (Χερσόνησος τοῦ Αἵμου). The countries commonly included in the Balkan region are Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo (independent since February 17, 2008, not recognized by some countries), Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Other countries sometimes included are Romania and Turkey.

The Balkan area is the major crossroad between the Near East and Europe, cradle of the Greek and the Thracian civilizations, land ruled by three vast empires (Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman), each one with its own influence upon it. It will not be too far-fetched to say that the Balkans is a melting pot of ethnicities and religions, a great mixture of different ethnical groups with their own languages and traditions coexisting and cooperating for centuries.

Religion, Ethnos, Conflict

The dominating religious denomination on the Peninsula is Orthodox Christianity, followed by Islam (both Sunni and Shia), Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Unitarianism, Armenian Orthodoxy and Judaism. The Balkans can remember conflicts between all of the fore-mentioned. Roman Catholic crusades (13th c.), Muslim invasions (14th–15th c.), Protestant repressions (Transylvania, 17th c.), a whole genocide against the Armenians (Turkey, 1915-1917), etc. During the Balkan wars (1912-1913), whose victims were more than 140 000, from both sides of the frontline the soldiers were encouraged by Orthodox priests. The peace in some regions is still very fragile, which can be clearly seen from the recent events in Kosovo.

The French geographer Yves Lacoste emphasizes that the Balkan Peninsula is a record-holder for the number of the nations, whose pretensions are more or less in contradiction. Greeks, Turks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians, Romanians – these are eight nations living on an area smaller than France. Each one of them has the feeling that it had become a victim of the historical injuries, and that it didn’t profit enough territory and receive its due respect. The effect from the combination of political leaders using those feelings, and from appropriate historical circumstances, can easily lead to the spark of conflict in “Europe’s ammunition dump”, as a friend of my father used to call the Balkans. Sadly but true, the term “Balkanization”, deriving from the name of the Peninsula, refers exactly to the process of fragmentation of a region into smaller regions that are often hostile or non-cooperative with each other.

The main questions remain through the echoes of the countless wars – is the religious diversity a reason for the separation and the conflicts on the Balkans? Is there an adequate theological answer for all that suffering, a part of which we had witnessed not long ago? Is there a way to keep and strengthen this fragile peace? Very often, especially some atheists, point to the ethnic and religious differences as one of the main causes for the clashes in the area. When the communists took over the area in the mid 1940s, one of their main tasks was to convince the people how bad religion was and how much trouble it caused. Of course, for a religious person those accusations are totally implausible.

As a first course student in the University, we had a lecturer, an old professor from our capital city Sofia. One day, a colleague of mine tried to raise the topic about WWII. Suddenly, the old professor got deeply upset and tears made his eyes wet. He said to us “Young people, remember well that even the most fragile peace is better than the most equitable war”. Later on, we found out that some of his friends from his school years were killed during the bombings on Sofia in 1944, which took more than 1200 victims and injuring the same amount of people. As most of the cases anywhere in the world, the conflicts on the Balkans are initially on a political basis. Eventual religious clashes perform nothing more than a turn to an emergent military conflict. This brings up enormous responsibility to the politicians, who need to be very careful with keeping up the unstable peace in the area. Political parties with an “ultra” label on them, especially when they involve religion in their politics, don’t work for anything other than creating tension and hatred between the people.

“Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39)

No matter how God is worshiped and praised, no matter what kind of sacred scriptures are respected and ridden, none of the religions confessed on the Balkans is preaching oppression or hatred against the others. If there is something that is turning one group of religious people against another, that is called human delusion. For an instance, it is not accidental that the one of the most speculated terms in Islam is the “Jihad” – the so called “holy war” – a terrifying interpretation of the Quranic text, created by human thirst for political power. The Islamic Mujahideen (“struggler” or “freedom fighter”) and Militia Christi (“Soldiers of Christ”) are two sides of a same coin. Instead of a zeal for living a virtuous life, the meaning of the term has often falsely substituted. The religious wars are result of a fatal human misbelieve, intentional used as an instrument of domination and oppression. It is very important to realize that neither Christianity nor Islam was meant to become bearers of prejudice and oppression. Our great duty is to prevent this happening and to stop the use of religion in political conflicts. To do good deeds and to not do evil is a constantly repeating call in all religions. As an example; 

For Allah loves those who do good (Quran 2:195, 3:134, 3:148, 5:14, 5:96),

For Allah loveth no transgressors (Quran 2:190),

 Allah loveth not mischief (Quran 2:205).

In the core of every religion, there is a message about equality, love and peace – we are all equal in the face of the Creator. We must also clearly understand that God is not to blame for our mistakes and failures. In his homily “That God is Not the Cause of Evils”, the great Orthodox thinker St Basil the Great (†379) writes:

Truly foolish, therefore, and lacking all understanding and mind is he who says there is no God. Alongside him, no less in this madness is he who says that God is the cause of evils. I consider their sins to be of equal gravity because each one similarly denies the good.

As we know very well, “God is love” (I John 4:16) and “He does not wants the death of the sinner, but his converting and salvation” (Orthodox evening prayer to Lord Jesus Christ). We, humans, are the sinners causing injustice, lying, using unwisely the power granted to us from the Lord and twisting religion to serve our needs and desires. “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil, which I would not, that I do” (Romans 7:19).

As Bishop Alexander (Mileant) mentions in his work The Ten Commandments – Moral Foundation of Society, “as long as evil abides in people, wars and crimes are inevitable evils”. One will attack, another will respond – a circle that has no end – and indeed, it is hard to remain in stance of peace when your own family and land are under a death threat. Then where we should search for solution to prevent the past mistakes? “The only true solution is that the people should overcome the evil in themselves and reform their hearts”, writes Bishop Alexander, because otherwise it is clear that the violence will never stop.

To start with, one deeper education in our own religious traditions would be really helpful to teach us how to “love thy neighbour as ourselves” (Leviticus 19:18). Nevertheless, it is also very desirable to motivate a proper understanding of the other denominations and religions, and to create a peaceful frame for religious dialogue, friendship and respect between the younger generations, suitable with the historical specifics not only for the Balkan area. “Only a peace between equals can last, only a peace the very principle of which is equality and common participation in a common benefit” (Woodrow Wilson). The goal is to understand the others and to love them as they are – this, I firmly believe, is what the people from my grandmother’s village managed to achieve over the years of coexistence. However, I also do not doubt that they also had hard times getting along together. Let us not forget, though, that God ordered us to pray for our offenders and to do good to them, even if sometimes we know that they are not right to offend us. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, states that “it is better to be treated with injustice ourselves than to do injustice to others”. Only in such a state of unconditional love, “mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Psalm 85:10).

Suggested readings:

I. Bartholomew, Ed. John Chryssavgis War and Suffering (Grand Rapids, MI, 2003).

G. Haar and J. Busuttil Bridge or Barrier: Religion, violence, and visions for peace (Boston, MA, 2001).

I. Merdjanova Religion & Politics on the Balkans (Silistra, 2004).

Janko Stefanov was born on 19 June 1987 in Dryanovo town, Central Bulgaria. He was raised in a Muslim community and is now an Orthodox Christian. Currently, he is a student of Orthodox Theology at the University of St Cyril & St Methodius in Bulgaria’s medieval capital Veliko Tarnovo.

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