History of the Interreligious Council of Bosnia & Herzegovina

February 3rd, 2015 11:46 am


 The Process of Forming the Inter Religious Council

of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Background Information

Bosnia-Herzegovina has had a rich multi-cultural, multi-religious history throughout many centuries. However, due to the terrible restructuring of the land and society in the last war, damage was done to the fine structure of the inter ethnic and inter religious relations. Many people took sides and considered the other as enemy.

When the reconstruction of the country started, with the help of numerous international agencies and NGO’s, some of them realized that restoring buildings and infrastructure was important, but would not bring reconciliation among divided groups.

The World Conference on Religions for Peace WCRP, from NYC, the Center for Strategic and International Studies CSIS, from Washington D.C. and Mercy Corps International decided to develop a strategy and initiate programs for peacemaking among the religions. The idea was to engage people in shared listening and in-depth conversations and reflection on the values of their own traditions and to help them find common understandings and shared values through the series of training seminars and workshops. People from all walks of life, from diverse religions had a chance to articulate a shared vision for peace and build relationships across ethno- religious lines, understanding the cycle of victimhood and aggression, while giving up revenge and changing biases.

The issues of grief, basic needs, fear, apology, forgiveness and justice have been addressed too. Communication skills and problem solving were also a part of training, on a grass roots level.  These programs were helping in restoration of the traditional Bosnian neighborhood culture, where respect of the other had been one of the major values.

Identifying the Problem

It become obvious, however, that the spiritual leaders, the heads of the religious communities were not communicating enough, or at all, in order to contribute to the restoration process.  Some constructive facilitation of reconciliation process from outside was needed.

The religious leaders were very much respected by their own communities and congregations and were a strong vehicle for changing attitudes for better or worse. At the same time they were not able to find the right way to communicate with leaders from the other groups.  To complicate matters at that time, just after the war, a Serb-Orthodox leader was living outside Sarajevo, in a small remote village of Sokolac.

Mapping the Relationships

The leaders of each of the four major religious communities were the primary actors needed in order to pursue reconciliation at an institutional level between the religious communities.  These actors included the head of Moslem Community, Raisu-l-Ulema, Dr. Mustafa Ef. Ceric, the leader of Serb Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Nicolay Mrdja, the leader of Roman Catholic Church, Archbishop Cardinal Vinko Puljic, and a head of Jewish community Dr. Jakob Finci.  Secondary actors were the internationals and local intermediaries who had been developing the reconciliation efforts among religious people.  These included Dr. David Steele from Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Dr. Landrum Bolling from Mercy Corps International, William Vandley from the World Conference on Religion for Peace (WCRP), Dr. David Little from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), her Excellency, U.S. Ambassador to Austria Dr. Swanee Hunt, and Vjekoslav Saje, from Center for Religious Dialogue (CRD) in Sarajevo.  A third level of actors included those Bosnians with whom the intermediaries and the primary actors consulted during the process of developing the Inter Religious Council. These third-level actors included, among others: the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the vicar general of the Roman Catholic Church, Muslim and Franciscan professors, a Serbian Orthodox priest and Serbian Orthodox journalist who had remained in Sarajevo during the war, and a Jewish rabbi.

Action Plan

It was clear to these people that links needed to be established between the primary actors. But how?

Identifying and Selecting Options

The idea came through a brainstorming process on the part of several outside players who were involved on different levels in reconciliation processes in Bosnia. Based on their experience in working with local religious leaders, these secondary actors designed a plan of how to involve the leaders of four major religious communities in a facilitated dialogue which would produce a joint institution to help solve various issues among communities in Bosnia.

Identifying a Coalition Partner among the Religious Leaders, with whom the secondary actors could work effectively

First step in this process was to attract one of the leaders to make an initiative and try to invite other three leaders to meet in a safe environment. The head of the Muslim Community Raisu-l-Ulema, Dr. Mustafa Ef.Ceric was very pleased with this idea, and accepted to invite them for the first meeting in his office in Sarajevo in March 1997.

Final Action Plan

Next step was to contact other leaders and convey this invitation in such a manner that they would feel open for the first communication. A leader of Roman Catholic Church, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, and a head of Jewish community Dr. Jakob Finci accepted the initiative and promised to participate.  The major issue was how to get a leader of Serb Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Nicolay Mrdja on Board, as he was still residing and serving, outside of Sarajevo in a remote village of Sokolac, known as one of the notorious strongholds of Bosnian Serb army.

Step 1

In order to enlist the participation of Metropolitan Nicolay, the team of secondary actors decided that, since Vjeko Saje was from Sarajevo and had enough experience of living and working with people of other traditions, that he should be the one who would directly go to Metropolitan Nicolay’s  office and residence, and explain the proposal  to form an inter-religious council.  It was very soon after the war, and for Vjeko to go to the territory of the former “enemy” was rather challenging. The trip turned out to be a time of attitude change for Vjeko himself. He started to humanize the other, a difficult process after several years of resentment, due to the experience of the siege of Sarajevo.  To his great satisfaction, Vjeko was received with respect and attention by Metropolitan Nicolay.

Step 2

After having a lunch with him and his priests, and explaining the main points of the initiative, the metropolitan agreed to go with Vjeko back to Sarajevo. For him it was also journey to uncertainty, as he had been out of Sarajevo for more than five years, and out of his main church and office. Vjeko took him and one of his fellow priests directly to the office of Dr. Ceric, the Moslem Leader, where Cardinal Puljic, and Dr. Finci had already been waiting, together with a number of the team of facilitators, the secondary actors. So, it was a first occasion when four prominent leaders of the four main religions had a chance to see each other, and start dialogue after so many years of conflict and separation. The meeting was formal but open, with some reservations, and they agreed to continue seeing each other.

Step 3

Another step was to encourage them to start preparing some joint statements and documents, as a base for the future institution, which became known as the Inter-religious Council.  The political situation was still tense and the four religious leaders were not in the position to decide freely who would be a host and where the venue could be for the discussion on forming the joint body.  At that time, the US Ambassador to Austria, Dr. Swanee Hunt, was engaged in different projects on women’s issues and inter religious dialogue in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Being aware of the formal problem about the venue, she offered her residence in Vienna to be a neutral and safe environment for the dialogue.

This was appreciated by all the parties involved.  In May 1997, after four days of intense facilitated discussion, including both separate and joint brainstorming sessions, the first draft of the Statement of Shared Moral Commitments was successfully prepared and accepted by all four religious leaders

Step 4

Then it took the four religious leaders just one month to revise the statement and prepare the final version of the document.  All four leaders, on behalf of their religious communities, accepted and signed the Statement of Shared Moral Commitments on June 6th 1997, in the presence of political figures and representatives of the international community. They committed themselves to work together on sensitive issues, and help in changing the attitudes of their people. It was also a moment when they formally announced establishing of the Inter Religious Council (IRC) with presidents to rotate every year.

Step 5

In order for the IRC to function effectively, it was necessary to select as the first president someone who could be trusted by all the other religious leaders.  It was decided to ask Mr. Finci from the Jewish Community to serve as the first president.  The Jewish Community of Sarajevo had gained a great reputation with all groups through the even-handed way in which they administered their humanitarian relief program.   As the head of this aid program, Mr. Finci gained enough credibility to receive the confidence of the other three religious leaders.

Present Activities

The IRC is still functioning today.   It assists in many troublesome situations and prevents potential conflicts.  They now deal with the return of refugees and displaced persons, religious freedoms, inter religious cooperation, general problems of reconstructing the country, restoration of religious buildings and sites that were destroyed in war, and the promotion of reconciliation on different levels. The IRC is currently developing a network of young adults who are actively participating in different training, and projects in bringing communities together.

The IRC also participates in parliamentary discussions, and in various inter-faith events around the world. For them dialogue does not have an alternative, and the hatred must be discouraged in the media and in political life. In spite of crimes and atrocities done in recent past, their stand is that reconciliation is God’s commandment and must be cherished.  Justice must be accomplished through the legal system and courts must prosecute the war criminals.

In the light of what is happening in the world today, having so many acts of terrorism done in the name of religion, they acted in preventing this by preaching of need to embrace, respect and know more about the other. That is the way to change attitudes and avoid so called “Clash of Civilizations”.

In spite of many unresolved issues, the formation of the IRC illustrates that Bosnia can again be a place that exemplifies co-habitation, mutual respect, and understanding of different traditions, religions and ethnicities.

Vjekoslav Saje


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