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NEWS STORY: Balkan religious leaders take new step toward cooperation

c. 1999 Religion News Service BUDAPEST, Hungary _ What role does religious diversity play in the troubled mosaic of the Balkans? Can interfaith dialogue help in resolving the bitter political conflicts wracking the region? Can religion and religious leaders contribute to building lasting peace? These were some of the questions debated by Muslim, Christian and […]

c. 1999 Religion News Service

BUDAPEST, Hungary _ What role does religious diversity play in the troubled mosaic of the Balkans? Can interfaith dialogue help in resolving the bitter political conflicts wracking the region? Can religion and religious leaders contribute to building lasting peace?

These were some of the questions debated by Muslim, Christian and Jewish leaders from the former Yugoslavia and other Balkan countries at a one-day meeting in Budapest this week.

The meeting _ the first such interreligious conference since the Kosovo conflict _ was sponsored by the European Jewish Congress, the Conference of European Rabbis and the European Council of Synagogue Organizations.

It brought together leaders from Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christian churches, as well as religious and lay leaders of Muslim and Jewish communities, from Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. Representatives from several other European states also attended.

Participants ranged from the president of the Islamic community in Macedonia, to the Roman Catholic vicar general of Sarajevo, Bosnia, to Serbian Orthodox bishops and the rabbi of Zagreb, Croatia.

The primary result from the session was the decision to set up a permanent interreligious working group charged with instilling a spiritual dimension in reconstruction efforts in the war-torn region. The group will hold its first meeting in September.”We hope that this endeavor will help reinforce the religious leadership to counter extremist politicians,”said European Jewish Congress secretary general Serge Cwajgenbaum.

But participants said the simple fact of the meeting itself and the fact that a”common language”had been found for communication was also significant.

Hamad Mustapha, secretary of the faculty of Islamic Studies in Skopje, Macedonia, said political tensions surfaced during the meeting but”we found common language that we should start to know each other better and work more for peace and tolerance. Our region needs this obligation more than ever before.” A statement released after the meeting stressed that education was needed to prevent”religious and cultural hostility.” Citing”the power of religious leaders through the `word’ spread to the faithful,”it called upon”the integrity of the religious leaders throughout the region to speak with courage to their fellow believers, to turn the grief and feeling of loss into a catalyst which will heal what has been hurt and build what has been destroyed.” The past decade of nationalist conflict in the former Yugoslavia has had strong religious undertones.

Religious faith is deeply associated with national or ethnic identity. Most Serbs follow the Serbian Orthodox faith; Croatians are generally Roman Catholic, while Kosovars are mainly Muslim, and the people of Bosnia are divided among Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

Religious shrines and places of worship, including monasteries, mosques and churches, have been deliberately targeted by warring sides as symbols of their opponents.”This week’s meeting was one of a series of meetings not just of religious leaders, but of non-governmental organizations and businesses, trying to explore the possibility of cooperation in southeastern Europe,”said Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community in Bosnia.”We Jews are trying to play the role of honest broker,”he said.”We’re the only ones without territorial or power claims. Having been victims so many times in our history, we know how difficult and important it is to forgive and to create normal relations, especially in a region as fragile as the Balkans.” During the war in Bosnia, La Benevolencija, the social service organization of the Jewish community of Sarajevo, became a highly respected conduit for nonsectarian humanitarian aid to all factions in the besieged city.

Last week, the 186-member Jewish community in Skopje, Macedonia, backed by several international Jewish organizations, formed a Skopje La Benevolencija group, modeled on the Sarajevo organization, to provide humanitarian aid to Kosovar refugees in Macedonia and to Macedonian institutions strained by the current crisis.

The stated object of the July 6 meeting was to discuss the role and responsibility of religious leaders in promoting dialogue and cooperation against the poisoned background of nationalist strife often egged on by extremists in the name of religion.

There was a consensus that religious groups should speak out against violence against other religious groups and show support to victims of such aggression.”Religious communities in the Balkans have a very great influence, not only among believers, but in the larger sense of society,”said Irinej Bulovic, the Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Backa, Serbia. But, he added,”There has been a misuse of religious feelings.” Said Daniel Szabo, vice lay president of the General Synod of the Reformed Church of Hungary,”We need to have hope that we can heal wounds, not just our own wounds, but also the wounds of our `opposers’ _ and even those of our enemies.”

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