Feature 30 Jun 17

Bosnian Clerics Unite to Condemn Wartime Sexual Violence

Leaders of the Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish and Catholic communities signed a declaration denouncing the stigmatisation of survivors of conflict-related sexual violence as Bosnia’s Inter-religious Council continued efforts to promote reconciliation.

Igor Spaic BIRN Sarajevo
The signing of the declaration in Sarajevo. Photo: Inter-Religious Council.

If Balkan history had a soundtrack, it would be the sounds coming from the National Theatre in Sarajevo on Thursday evening.

Religious songs of the Islamic, Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish faiths flowed through the large golden room, as leaders of the four religious communities came together to mark 20 years since the establishment of Bosnia’s Inter-Religious Council by signing the Declaration on Denouncing Stigmatisation of Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence.

“What is said is often forgotten. But what is written down stays for the coming generations. This is why we believe that this declaration, while it will not solve all our problems... will help us to look into each other’s eyes and try to mend the wounds of those who have suffered in the past war,” Jakob Finci, the head of the Bosnian Jewish Community and one of the original founders of the Council, told a press conference earlier that day.

The vice-chief mufti of Bosnia's Islamic Community, Husein Smajic, said the Council had given a platform to women to speak about the violence that they have experienced, both during the 1992-95 war and in the post-war period.

“We want this stigma to escape all future generations, by telling stories of all the miserable events that took place here,” he explained.

Rape was used as a weapon of war during the Bosnian conflict. The UN estimates that up to 50,000 people were raped – always by perpetrators who belonged to a different ethnic group or religion than the victim.

After performances by the local Orthodox, Jewish, Islamic and Catholic choirs, Thursday evening's event was concluded with the signing of the declaration.

Pramila Patten, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, welcomed the initiative.

“Rape is a cruel weapon that is as devastating as any bullet or bomb. It ravages victims and their families. It destroys communities, and undermines their chances for reconciliation if left unadressed. It has also been described as the oldest and yet least condemned crime of all,” Patten said.

Tanya Domi, adjunct assistant professor of international and public affairs at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, who has been following the human rights situation in the Balkans for more than two decades, also praised the Council's stance.

“I think it's a major step forward to actually come together across religion to advance respect and dignity for people who have suffered torture. Specifically the issue of sexual violence is an issue and an egregious crime that the war in Bosnia is well known for,” Domi told BIRN.

“Many women suffered, and now we know, many men have also suffered from this crime. Many of those victims have been isolated and shunned by their own families and communities,” she said.

Domi said she believes that if religious leaders speak out and embrace the victims, it could promote reconciliation.

“We would have to look at how they plan to follow up from this agreement. What are they going to do, and how are they going to meet with victims and their families and communities,” she said.

A melting pot of religions

The declaration is the first of its kind in the world. But this is nothing new for Sarajevo - the city is a trend-setter.

Twenty years ago, it gave birth to the world’s first national inter-religious council.

It was about time. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a mix of religions for centuries. As conquerors came and went, each left behind some of his culture as well as his faith.

Roman Catholicism arrived in Bosnia more than 1,000 years ago, and over time pushed out paganism. However, the new religion was often misunderstood, and in some places grew into a new religion called the Bosnian Church, which the Vatican back then declared heresy.

The Franciscan order was sent to get it straight and the two religions co-existed for a while.

With the arrival of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century, Islam and Eastern Orthodoxy slowly started spreading - creating a mix of four religions that co-existed even during the darkest times of Catholic inquisition that dominated middle-age Europe.

The religious variety and tolerance of the western Ottoman province of Bosnia attracted Jews from Spain, but also from all over Europe, fleeing religious persecution.

By the 16th century, Bosnia and Herzegovina was already a melting pot of five different religions – however, with the Bosnian Church already dying.

In the turbulent periods that followed, Bosnia’s population began relying on allies from the outside, basing their loyalty on religion. Throughout the past 200 years that loyalty grew into nation-building, giving Bosnia its ethnic mix of today: Bosnian Serbs, Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and the handful of Jews who survived WWII.

During Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, ethnicity and religion was at the centre of the conflict, so in 1997, religious leaders sat down and concluded they had to restart the system and show their flocks that they can co-exist.

“Since our establishment, our biggest goal was reconciliation. In these 20 years we aimed to help build a civil society with the best thing it has – inter-religious dialogue. There is no alternative to dialogue,” said Bosnia's Catholic Cardinal Vinko Puljic, another original founder of the Council.

“Today in the world there are many inter-religious councils, and the first one ever mentioned was in 1997, when we were established,” Serbian Orthodox Bishop Vladika Grigorije, the current head of the Inter-religious Council, said at the conference.

“People from all over the world have come to these rooms, and what is most interesting is that they are not coming only to tell us their ideas, but to ask for advice from our experiences in what we have learned from each other in the past 20 years,” he said.

More similarities than differences

Today, the Council has 15 committees all over the country – in Bihac, Bjeljina, Banja Luka, Bugojno, District Brcko, Doboj, Foca, Gorazde, Livno, Novi Travnik, Orasje, Tuzla, Zenica, Zepce and Trebinje.

The Council has worked on more than 100 projects, said Smajic - one of those being the monitoring of attacks on religious institutions.

“With our work up to now, we have managed to lower the occurence of attacks on religious institutions by more than 50 per cent, and we are proud of this,” Smajic said.

The ultimate goal is to have such attacks treated as criminal offences, not as misdemeanours, he added.

The Council has also organised open-door days at religious institutions.

“It is important to us that all our priests and imams enter our mosques and churches, that we bring our students of various universities and our citizens there, so they have a good idea of our institutions and what happens and and is being spoken about there,” Smajic said.

In February, the Council also organised an event at which the four religious leaders spoke out against nationalism, amid the tensions emerging in the country at the time.

In April, the four leaders also visited several sites where atrocities were committed against members of all of their communities, praying together and paying respects to 'each other's' victims.

“I hope we gave some inspiration to our political leaders to follow our footsteps,” Finci said of the visits.

He also said that he hoped that the Council's work could promote post-war reconciliation.

“Many saw the war in Bosnia as a religious war. We know it was not so. We also know that in the same way religion and faith has been blamed for things, it can also be used to establish better relations between us all, as we are all children of the same God,” he said.

“We have much more in common than we have differences. However we never emphasise these commonalities, but only the differences,” he added.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus