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17 Oct 11

Turkey Mediates Between Serbia's Battling Muslims

Ankara is getting involved in a fresh bid to end the four-year schism between Serbia's two Islamic communities.

Bojana Barlovac Belgrade

Turkey has intervened to end the damaging split between Serbia's two rival Islamic communities, one based in Belgrade and the other in the mainly Bosniak [Muslim] southwest Sandzak region.

"The solution lies in one unique Islamic community, which will respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia and cooperate with all other churches and religious communities in Serbia and the region," Sulejman Ugljanin, a Serbian government minister, who is himelf a Muslim, announced.

It is understood that a Turkish-mediated agreement is to be signed by the two heads of the two Serbian Islamic communities and the head of the Muslim community in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The split dates back to 2007. The Islamic Community in Serbia, based in Novi Pazar, the biggest town in Sandzak, looks to neighbouring Bosnia for spiritual guidance and is led by Muamer Zukorlic. The Islamic Community of Serbia, based in Belgrade, is led by Adem Zilkic.

In the last four years, relations between the two sides have been burdened by mutual non-recognition, a good deal of name-calling and even fisticuffs between their respective supporters.

This is not the first time Turkey has tried to play a mediating role in the affairs of Serbia's Muslim minority.

The Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davatoglu attempted to heal the breach on a visit to Novi Pazar two years ago. A Turkish delegation headed by Turkey's ambassador to Serbia, Ali Riza Colak, visited Novi Pazar again this June.

The latest attempt follows a visit by a Serbian government delegation to Ankara on October 10 where Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan received minister Ugljanin and Rasim Ljajic, Labour and Social Policy Minister, also a Muslim, to discuss Turkey's investments in the Sandzak area. Both ministers are declared supporters of Zilkic.

According to a statement issued after the meeting, Erdogan said Turkey would donate 10 million euros to build an airport in Sandzak and another 30 million euros to build a new road from Novi Pazar to the town of Sjenica.

Media reported after the meeting that Turkey had conditioned further assistance to Sandzak on the two Islamic communities in Serbia agreeing to reunite.

Mufti Zukorlic has hitherto rebuffed all talk of reconciliation, but this time his spokesperson Samir Tandir told Balkan Insight that serious talks were ongoing, although he declined to disclose details.

Zukorlic "will respect whatever decision the supreme leaders of the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Turkey make," Tandir said.

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