NEWS FEATURE: Interfaith Group Works To Overcome Bosnian Ethnic, Religious Differences

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c. 2003 Religion News Service

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina _ A square made up of Abraham’s name in four languages and three alphabets hurtles onto the screen of the namesake organization’s Web site.

It’s the logo of a homegrown association of interfaith peaceworkers called Abraham that is celebrating its fifth anniversary, and it is a good symbol for the turmoil of postwar Bosnia.

The group’s own journey often mirrors the philosophical, political and social Angst of its country as Bosnia tries to emerge from the ethnic violence of its most recent war and the authoritarian culture of its communist past.

The group is among the most high profile of local nongovernmental organizations in helping mend the jagged breaks created by the propaganda-driven violence of the conflict. Abraham has worked with numerous international interfaith groups, including the Council of European Churches, which is part of the World Council of Churches, and with (Roman Catholic) Pax Christi International Youth Forum in Brussels.

Abraham’s approach is to find the common ground among the country’s four main traditional religions and to encourage respect of their differences. Thus, the logo carries the group’s name in English, local Latin letters, Cyrillic and Hebrew.

The group’s basis is the common “abrahamic” belief in one God of its members. Its mechanisms include hospitality “to reconstruct broken relationships,” action against indifference and a striving for peaceful coexistence rather than a narrow insistence on each group’s own rights.

Since the peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war, “we actually have `tolerance,’ where people live side by side without interaction,” said Director Entoni Seperic, a 25-year-old theology student and one of its founding members. “Living together with no interaction is not (real) tolerance.”

Such tolerance, he said, can create more divisions than it heals, because it’s possible to “tolerate” the “other” without embracing and respecting their rights, he said.

Seperic echoed a conclusion of a report commissioned by the nonprofit United States Institute of Peace.

“As one foreign NGO staff member described the current situation, particularly where refugees have returned in northwest Bosnia and Herzegovina, different religious and ethnic communities aim `not to coexist at the moment, but to run separate lives for now and to leave it to time to heal wounds,”’ the report said.

In the past two years, international agencies trying to guide and coordinate Bosnia’s education reform efforts recruited a German specialist who was working with Abraham to help develop a new course called The Culture of Religions. The agencies, now led by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, hope the course ultimately will replace the current ethnically specific religious education in public schools that often alienates students who are not from the majority ethnic group.

Twenty schools throughout Bosnia will experiment with the new subject starting in September, and the OSCE hopes to extend the course to all schools in 2004, said Claude Kieffer, the OSCE’s deputy head of education.

“Now, Abraham is in the process of devising further training opportunities for the 20 teachers who will pilot the subject,” Kieffer said.

The chances that the course will push aside religious instruction is slim, Seperic said. The leadership of each faith sees religious education as the primary vehicle for recruiting members and disseminating its beliefs, and they are unlikely to let go of such an opportunity.

“They saw it as a violent act,” Seperic said of the plan to eliminate religious education in public schools.

Though Bosnia remains a largely secular society, ubiquitous and nefarious propaganda during the recent war succeeded in linking ethnic and religious identities by default _ Croats with Catholicism, Serbs with Orthodoxy and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) with Islam.

That tolerance and interethnic relations are growing is borne out by a long list of what the U.S. Institute of Peace’s report called “previously unthinkable recent events.”

It noted that “a Sarajevan folk singer is planning a concert in Banja Luka; a Herzegovinan Croat coach of a national soccer team has expressed his intention to include Serbian players on the team; and a Bosnian Serb winner of a national beauty contest declared she would do her best to represent her homeland _ Bosnia and Herzegovina, not Republika Srpska (Serbia).”

Abraham hopes to continue making its own contribution to interreligious understanding. An internal crisis in the past year resulted partly because members were either burned out or neglected as the organization threw itself into one project after another, Seperic said. Now, the organization plans to concentrate more on membership support and development in addition to its projects.

“There are a lot of things that still have to be done here in Bosnia,” Seperic said. “For me, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a chance for Europe. The identities that meet here are a special case. We (Europeans) have another chance here. If it fails here, it will fail in Germany, it will fail in the U.K., in France.

“Sarajevo can happen anywhere,” he said referring to the recent war. “Bosnia-Herzegovina can happen anywhere.”

DEA END GIENGER

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