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date: 19 October 2020

Religion in the Balkan Wars

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the roles of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church in Croatia, and the Islamic religious authority of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1991–1995 war inWestern Balkans. Religion in this case has been instrumental as a factor for galvanizing conflict and rationalizing its outcomes. The article also notes religious activities aimed at preventing violence and healing postconflict societies. The public influence of these religions began during the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia. Through the war and afterward, religions continued rebuilding resources and increasing influence. Traditional religion was blended with the new national ideologies carried out by ethnic nationalist parties allied with the ethnic majority churches established as state religions. Two decades after the Balkan war, the growing influence of these religions in public sphere coincides with the post-Yugoslav new ethnic nations’ failures in state building and democratic transition.

Keywords: The 1991-1995 war in Western Balkans, The Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholic Church in Croatia, the Islamic religious authority in Bosnia and Herzegovina, nationalism, war

Introduction: Religious Traits in Wars of Nations

This article examines some aspects of the most destructive of several wars fought during the 1990s after the collapse of the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY): the 1991–1995 war in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. This largest conflict in Europe since the Second World War caused massive terror and brutality with approximately 150,000 deaths and several million people forcibly resettled. The differences in religion, ethnicity, and culture did matter in the prewar ethnic nationalistic movements, but religion was not among the principal causes of war. The Balkan wars of the 1990s could have been averted by some kind of domestic settlement among the constituent republics or by a prompt action by the international community. At any rate, this war can be explained only by considering multicausality and the historical context. In addition, there are peculiarities of the Balkans. Thus as communist regimes of Eastern Europe were collapsing, religion also had its special historical moment, and in some cases majority religions helped the undemocratic regime’s downfall and democratization (Poland is customarily cited as an example). In the western parts of the Balkans, which used to be socialist Yugoslavia, although religion did contribute to the collapse of communism, these religions’ principal motive for fighting Yugoslav communism was above its ideology of multiethnic cooperation in an ethnically diverse and religiously pluralistic federal state. The religions actually fought for this country partition into ethnically and religiously homogenous states. In a final analysis, religion in the western Balkans proved more effective in aggravating the previously existing national and social conflict and justifying its outcomes rather than as a force capable of building a civil society and backing democratic institutions while also preventing violence and healing postconflict societies. Moreover, in the postwar period, majority faiths allied with ethnic nationalist parties in the new states of the western Balkans have thwarted democratization and shared the responsibility for a widespread political corruption.

The earliest clashes began in the summer of 1991 in Croatia. At that time this country was predominantly populated by ethnic Croats, but there was a sizeable ethnic Serb minority (then about 12 percent of the republic’s population). Encouraged and armed from Serbia, Croatia’s Serbs larger rural faction—as opposed to urban Serbs who backed reformed communists—established a Serb ethnic separatist party and rebelled against a newly elected Croatian government under the nationalist historian Franjo Tuđman. War escalated further after Croatia, responding to the Serbian nationalist mobilization and also pursuing its own indigenous ethno-nationalist revolution induced by Tuđman’s party named Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ—the third term actually means “community,” not union), declared independence from the SFRY. Croats fought against the Serb rebels and the pro-Serb federal army. The war virtually ended in Croatia in the summer of 1995 when the Croats defeated the Serb secessionist movement. In the neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, war broke out earlier, in 1992, forcing into conflict the three indigenous ethnic groups of Bosnia (Muslims, Croats, and Serbs). The Serbs of Bosnia from the beginning fought for partition and were the first to use terror to create ethnically cleansed territories. The Croats followed suit. The Muslims radicalized as war escalated, and Muslim casualties surpassed the other two groups combined. Serbia and Croatia also participated, backing the ethnic separatists. This war ended in November 1995 after an international intervention. The peace treaty signed in Dayton, Ohio, left the country under an international conflict-managing regime and de facto segregated along ethno-confessional lines.

The Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims involved in this war are Europeans of Slavonic ancestry. They speak a language that is linguistically identical and used to be called Serbo-Croatian but in the new states appears under several different ethnic labels. Hence it is religion coupled with ethnic myths that highlights most visibly differences and boundaries between these groups. The Serbs are Eastern-Orthodox Christians, the Croats are Roman Catholics, and the Bosnian Muslims are South Slavs Islamicized through the Ottoman Turkish conquest. These differences have been reinforced by nationalist movement’s uses of religion and by religious leaders’ services to nationalist movements. In other words, religious differences between, say, Eastern Orthodox Christian peoples (i.e., Serbs, Macedonians, and Montenegrins) or between Serbs and Croats as Eastern-Orthodox and Western-Catholic Christians did not suffice to mobilize people for a war until ethnic nationalist myths and ideologies had been incorporated in church liturgies and religious organizations’ social activity. Consequently, historical myths and historical controversies, rather than theological disputes, dominated ethnic mass movements during the crisis of Yugoslav socialism and also in the postwar ethnic nations (Mojzes, 1994; Perica, 2002; Kolstø, 2005).

Emphasizing the thematic focus on religion, this article examines the three largest organized religions and their religious institutions: the Serbian Orthodox Church (informally called “Serbian church”), the Catholic Church in Croatia (a.k.a. “Church of the Croats”), and the Islamic religious authority of Bosnia and Herzegovina (officially titled “Islamic Community”). The focus is on the religious institutions’ responses to political mobilization and changes in times of crisis. Although it is often argued that this war was not based on religious identities, the ideological showcasing of religious legends and symbols; of historical figures heralded as saints, heroes, or villains; and of revered monuments and disputed cultural heritage represented a significant vehicle for mobilizing Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks. While ethnic movements in reality are fought over territory enlargement, borders, redistribution of social wealth, and to gain greater state power, religious symbols accompany this struggle to inspire, legitimize, and portray this struggle as righteous defensive liberation wars. In these struggles, various historical controversies, disputes over historical figures that one group celebrated as saints and heroes and another demonized as villains, various issues concerning interfaith and church–state relations and battles over monuments and memory sites were used to mobilize masses. After nearly half a century of relative stability in the multiethnic federation as designed by the Yugoslav communist founder Tito, such a bloody war would have not been possible without inventing interethnic hatred. For that purpose, religious nationalism proved to be one of the effective instruments. Religious and secular nationalisms, for at least two decades, already had been contributing to the disruption of the Yugoslav multiethnic federalism established by the communists. Contrary to the thesis popular in the West, at the early stages of the Balkan conflict, according to which ethnic warfare broke out as soon as the people were released from a firm communist dictatorship, the war of 1991–1995 came after a long social crisis. Thanks to liberalization of the Titoist communism from the 1960s to the 1980s, ethnic nationalism enjoyed relatively favorable conditions for mass mobilization and activism in the public sphere. Clerical elites of the three major faiths had contributed to the ethnic nationalistic causes as early as the 1970s and were tolerated by the regime relatively more than secular nationalists.

At any rate, religious symbols have been visible in prewar nationalist movements and even more during the 1991–1995 war and in postwar ethnic states. The warring factions’ propaganda deliberately portrayed this war as religious to conceal the postsocialist struggle for power and privatization of wealth. Initially, mass media in some Western countries, took this propaganda for granted because it suited some stereotypes about the Balkan peoples. The perception of the conflict as purportedly century-old and rooted in culture was also a good excuse for nonintervention. Also, religious discourses were politically marketable at the time of the collapse of “godless communism.” Hence in Eastern Europe, all aspiring postcommunist politicians—even the reformed communists—tended to portray themselves as enduringly religious or at least as religious converts in order to make themselves seem different from the discredited atheistic communists. They often presented themselves as formerly silent practicing believers under communism or, if they practiced publicly, as victims of communist discrimination and, in some cases, as persecuted due to religious beliefs.

Moreover, the following examples show how ethnic nationalist propaganda (Serb, Croat, and Muslim) emphasized the perspectives of religious war and cultural clash. As alleged from propaganda centers in Serbia, the Serbs have always defended Christian Europe from the advancing Islamists, and, at this point in history, were also defending Serbia from rising Croat nationalism reminiscent of the pro-Axis regime that attempted genocide against Serbs in World War II. At the same time, according to Croat propaganda, the Roman Catholic Croats fought for their “natural” belonging to the West and for democracy against the relics of communism and eastern despotism epitomized in the traditionally warlike Serbia, the ethnocentric Serbian Orthodox Church, and the communist-built Yugoslav People’s Army. The Bosnian Muslim leaders tried to explain to the world that they fought for the survival of the only indigenous 400-year-old European Muslim community that had been granted nationhood back in the 1960s and also to preserve the homeland of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a united multiethnic and multiconfessional nation.

Sacred symbols were on display in fighters’ images and on battlefields. Several thousand shrines of all the three faiths were destroyed although, as in case of human casualties, Bosnian Muslim religious symbols suffered most of the damage. Following massive expulsions of population, the conquering militia would destroy the enemy’s religious symbols and build their own to symbolically mark the territory (e.g., the capital city of what is today called the “Serb Republic” of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been “ethnically cleansed” from all its numerous historic and newer mosques while the local Muslims were expelled). Furthermore, these ethno-confessional armies were accompanied by priests and imams preaching the new nationalist ideologies legitimized by religion. They marched under religious symbols, attending religious services before battles and afterward when massacres and ethnic cleansing practices took place as testified by investigative journalists, antiwar activists, and witnesses before the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Also, a number of religious leaders and clergymen, let alone the nationalist hawks adorned with conspicuous religious insignia, contributed with religious discourses to the widespread rhetoric of hatred, ethnosectarian stereotyping, and warmongering. As ethnic parties and their clerical supporters took over the political stage, they inaugurated in public discourse a political jargon full of religious terms. Religion became a hallmark of the new patriotic ideologies and ethnonational identities. It was exploited for legitimizing the new regimes and rationalizing their policies. For example, an ethnic nationalist leader who was a newly converted Catholic used the Christian theological concept of transubstantiation as a synonym for privatization of formerly socialist property. That is to say, under the sacred shield of religion and the consecrated ethnic ideologies, the new ruling elites were also changing the class structure of society.

Finally, yet another bizarre phenomenon, particularly in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was the involvement of foreign combatants. International jihadists joined the predominantly Muslim army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and were assigned special operations and delicate assignments that they executed with extreme brutality. A battalion of Russian nationalists came to fight on the side of their Orthodox co-religionists in Serbia. Serb media showed a Russian nationalistic writer posing before cameras while assisting a Serb artillery firing at the besieged Sarajevo. Croatians received diplomatic support from the Vatican and Germany and Croatian émigré militants who returned from Western countries to defend the homeland. The American scholar Samuel P. Huntington found these alliances suitable to his globally debated thesis of the “clash of civilizations.” He made a number of references to the Bosnian war that he perceived as driven by irreconcilable cultural differences in a multiethnic and religiously pluralistic society (Huntington, 1996).

Constructing an Ethno-Confessional Nationhood

Surveys of religiosity, ethnicity, and social values, undertaken relatively frequently and by qualified researchers since the 1960s in socialist Yugoslavia and also later its successor states, show that in this case national identities form on the principle that holds that the confessional and the ethnic must be congruent. Thus religion and ethnicity reinforce each other in the process of redrawing boundaries to form the three sizeable ethnosectarian communities that are the focus of this article. These blocs took shape approximately from the 1930s through the wars of the 1990s. In the 1930s within the Yugoslav monarchy, the two largest churches clashed over their legal status and relations with the state. With the dispute unresolved, the clerical forces carried on the conflict through massive religious jubilees emphasizing historic ties between ethnic nations and religious organization that allegedly played pivotal roles in their survival and formation as nations. During World War II under the Axis occupation, ethnic and religious nations served to legitimize collaboration in several puppet regimes involved in massive war crimes and crimes of genocide. The formation of this ethno-confessional nationhood concluded during the wars of the 1990s. By the end of the twentieth century, the Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Bosnian Muslims became full-fledged nations emphatically emphasizing the mythical and symbolic dimensions of nationhood while the economy and statehood remained weak. According to their founding myths, key differences among these groups are in religion and civilization. Actually, through previous centuries these ethnies were not aware of religious, national, and civilizational differences. They constructed collective identities based on belonging to clans and villages, provincial identity, cities and other local identities with numerous dialects, and ethno-folklore that mirrored diverse geographies and historical experiences of life under foreign rule. It is noteworthy that the forceful imposing of the new homogenizing national identities fused with state religions since the 1990s generated an intriguing cultural backlash from below such as revival of local and regional identities particularly visible in urban pop culture, renaissance of the dialects, and growing influence of regional and local parties.

As the result of the interaction between religion and ethnic nationalism during the period from the 1930s to the 1990s, most contemporary ethnic Croats—considering it as “natural” and based on a long tradition—declare themselves Roman Catholics. Likewise, all Serbs are expected, at least as patriots if they are not faithful Christians, to be Eastern Orthodox and loyal members of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The majority among the three groups of Bosnia and Herzegovina known today as Bosniaks are the ICTY religious minority of Islamic faith. They were granted the constituent nationality status in the late 1960s by a secular regime, and, based on this, the Bosnian nationalist movement of the 1980s and 1990s otherwise decisively influenced by religion constructed the present-day Bosniak nation. By the same token, this national model granted to the major religious organizations the role of guardians of both religious tradition and national identity. Ethnic diversity with a reserved attitude toward ethnic nationalism could be found only in minority faiths, mostly smaller Christian denominations. Another example is a group known as “Yugoslavs by nationality,” which in its own right unsuccessfully sought an alternative to the model of congruence between ethnicity and religious identity. According to the census of 1981, 1.2 million people in the total population of 22 million declared “Yugoslav” as a nationality, which in this case actually means ethnicity because the all-Yugoslav nationality meant just citizenship. Also, in response to the question about religious identity, most of these Yugoslavs chose to be atheists, agnostics, or persons without religious affiliation, which is by far a higher number of atheists compared to atheists in other ethnic groups (Perica, 2002, 101–102). Another report from the early 1990s revealed amid erosion of Yugoslavism and homogenization of the three ethno-confessional blocs against the multiethnic federation that in addition to the “Yugoslavs by nationality” nearly 4.5 million people of what used to be the SFRY came from ethnically mixed families or were individuals unwilling to comply with the model of ethnoreligious nationality (Perica, 101). The 1991–1995 war and the formation of the new ethnic nation-states with their nationalistic regimes and state religions has virtually annihilated “Yugoslavs by nationality” or any similar possibility for individual or collective identity choices that would challenge the ethno-confessional scheme.

During the long crisis of socialism, with the ups and downs of the official Yugoslav multiethnic nationalism, a religiosity declining from the 1960s to the 1980s gradually recovered, above all as the factor reinforcing advancing ethnonationalist mobilizations in which the major religious organizations also took part (Perica, 2002, 38–88). Three major waves of nationalism shook the SFRY during the liberal phase of Titoism: in the late 1960s, in the early 1970s, and through the 1980s. Clerical nationalists stepped in following Tito’s crackdown on secular nationalism in the early 1970s. The Serbian Orthodox Church and Croatian Catholicism became nationalist forces active in the public sphere since the late 1960s, expanding their activity through the ensuing two decades. Due to its leaders’ accommodation with Titoism, which had earlier granted to the Muslims unprecedented religious rights and even constituent nationality status, the ulema of Bosnia mobilized as a supporting instrument of Bosnian Muslim nationalism in the late 1980s when the old regime weakened. Before that time, especially through the 1970s and 1980s, Serbian Orthodoxy and Croat Catholicism, challenging and testing the regime, carried out a series of commemorations, jubilees, and mass public gatherings that were outwardly religious but nationalistic in essence.

The Serbian Orthodox Church opened the series in 1968 with a massive procession in the capital city of Belgrade commemorating the Serb medieval ruler Dušan, symbolizing a strong and sizeable empire-like state in which the altar and the throne worked together as the ethnic community merged with the church., This was followed by the 1969 celebration of the 750th anniversary of the church’s ecclesiastical independence obtained by the statesman and spiritual leader Saint Sava from the ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople. In the following years, growing numbers of participants attended various jubilees, mass gatherings, and commemorations in major shrines, historic places, and sites of memory. The pinnacle came in 1989 with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo held around the well-preserved medieval Serbian shrines and monasteries. In the meantime, the nationalist discourse in Serbia repeatedly called Kosovo “Serbian Jerusalem.” Serbs were invited to fight for its deliverance from the local majority, ethnic Albanians, who were mostly Muslims. More than a million Serbs were in attendance at the 1989 grand jubilee. On this occasion, the communist-turned-nationalist Slobodan Milošević asserted his leadership in Serbia by exploiting the growing nationalist and religious sentiments. At the historic site by a fourteenth-century Serb monastery, he threatened with “armed battles” non-Serb people of Yugoslavia if they opposed his plan for restructuring Titoist federalism in order to create a Greater Serbia.

Milošević’s example, especially in comparison with his main rival in the post-Yugoslav struggle—the Croat Franjo Tuđman—showcases how former East European communists exploited religious and ethnic nationalism. The Serb leader made use of selected symbols and discourses of religious nationalism to garner popularity yet rejected the Serbian Orthodox Church’s aspirations for power-sharing. During the ten years of his rule, Milošević used the Church when it suited his politics while making unfulfilled promises in response to its demands. Consequently, the Church turned against him and contributed to his fall from power shortly after the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia. By contrast, Tuđman gladly shared power with the Catholic Church in Croatia. Tuđman abandoned elite ranks of Titoist communism in the 1970s. As a historian, he published revisionist historiography about Yugoslav inter-ethnic controversies. In 1989 he founded the HDZ, a nationalist party that was strongly backed by the Catholic Church. This party, among other things thanks to its clerical ally, has been in power for seventeen years. During nine years of his rule, Tuđman and the HDZ shared power and privatization profits with the Church; the Church legitimized tuđmanism. By contrast, Milošević, who converted only to secular but not clerical Serb nationalism—and also failed to create a Greater Serbia—is not memorialized in contemporary Serbia.

Croatian Catholicism as a nationalist force made its first significant move in the public sphere at the National Marian Congress jubilee in 1971 by emphasizing the Marian cult in Croat history. The cult of Mary in Croatia functioned as the symbol of the nation so that the Congress invoked the old slogan “Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen and Defender of the Croats,” used during particularly hard times of foreign rule. This Church activity was autonomous although coterminous with a Croatian mass movement led by secular ethnic nationalists. However, because this movement’s leaders were a “nationally awakened” fraction from Croatia’s communist leadership, Church leaders set a distinct agenda without explicit support for a movement with which they otherwise sympathized. This first jubilee led to a nine-year series of jubilees culminating with the “Great Novena—13 Centuries of Croatian Christianity.” The Great Novena began in 1975 with the “Great Covenant” jubilee celebrating the early medieval evangelization of the Croats, presented as the birth of the nation that allegedly continued life to the present. In 1979, the movement mobilized a crowd of nearly 200,000 honoring medieval ruler Branimir. He is selected among dozens of Croat ancient ethnic princes for accomplishments critically important in our time in the context of the struggle between the Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. According to the myth, it was the prince Branimir who succeeded to break up with Byzantine authorities and sealed the Croats’ loyalty to the popes of Rome.

These massive religious rallies with their openly nationalist content could be held in public thanks to the regime’s toleration. The regime gambled with democratization hoping to control religious leaders. For their part, the clerical nationalists negotiated with the communists while awaiting the emergence of ethnic nationalist leaders capable of taking over.

The key purpose of Serbian Church’s celebrations was restoration of ethnic nationhood by changing Serbia’s secular character and revoking Serbs’ commitment to the Yugoslav idea and the multiconfessional coexistence with the same state. The new forms of nationhood were designed according to ethnic myths, discovering the inspiration in the past to be transported to the present. For example, the king Dušan, commemorated by the Serbian Church in 1968, was the medieval ruler and saint who merged church and state and advanced Serb dominance throughout the Balkans. Likewise, the Kosovo myth, commemorated in 1989, narrates about the nation’s immortality and rebirth. Similarly, the Croat Great Novena emphasized the alleged thirteen-centuries-long continuity of the religious-national community and the Croat loyalty to the popes of Rome, which makes them different from Orthodox Serbs.

The religious jubilees and festivals unveiled the existing interethnic controversies while also inventing new ones. In 1984, with the two parallel religious nationalist jubilees managed by the two largest churches, a number of conflicting historical perspectives and explosive controversies were brought to the fore. Croatian Catholic church leaders particularly angered the Serbian Orthodox church by campaigning for rehabilitation of the wartime Archbishop of Zagreb Alojzije Stepinac, who was imprisoned by the communists as a collaborator with the Croatian pro-Nazi satellite regime that carried out genocide against Jews, Serbs, and Roma. The Catholic Church reinvented Stepinac as a martyr and an innocent victim of communist terror. The Church denied that genocide took place in the wartime Croat state but instead accused the Serbian church of helping Serb nationalist militia, which carried out massive crimes against Croats. At the conclusion of the Great Novena in September 1984, a crowd of some 200,000 Croats gathered at the shrine Marija Bistrica that was on this occasion promoted into a “national shrine.” The encouraged church leaders publicly demanded from state authorities’ specific rights and liberties, including the rehabilitation of Stepinac. The government was angered, but it was the already galloping Serbian nationalism that took it as a major challenge. Within a week, the Serbian Orthodox Church staged a counter-commemoration at the memorial site of World War II concentration camp at Jasenovac in Croatia. There, from 1941 to 1945, at least 80,000 victims were executed by the Croat fascists known as the Ustashas and their pro-Axis regime. Most of the victims were ethnic Serbs and Jews but also the Roma and Croats supporters of the communist-led Partisan antifascist resistance movement. On that occasion, speaking to 20,000 Serbs, the patriarch of the Serbian Church accused the Catholic Church of denying genocide and threatening to repeat it. The Serbian Church also challenged the Croats: the possible disaster might be averted if the Croat bishops repented for genocide and begged spiritual leaders of the Serbs for forgiveness. When granted, the two churches—as Serb clerical nationalists had imagined—would have prayed annually together for reconciliation at the Jasenovac concentration camp memorial site where, according to the idea of the Serb nationalist bishop Nikolaj Velimirović, a “temple of atonement” would be built. If the Croats refused repentance, as the same ideology projected, the only way to avert another fratricidal war would be partition of the country between Serbs and Croats. The Catholic Church of Croatia denied that genocide took place in the Croatian wartime state and consider hostile the Serbian Church’s argument that the Church took part in wartime crimes. Consequently, the supreme authorities of the two churches broke up communication and canceled ecumenical meetings. As early as 1987, the official newspaper of the Serbian Patriarchate, published an unofficial church authorities’ statement (by then shared by most of the Serb clergy) according to which Serb Orthodox and Croat Catholic Christianity were “two irreconcilable worlds”. These worlds could not coexist peacefully in the same state and therefore this state must be partitioned into a Catholic West and Orthodox East with the Bosnian-Muslim section in the middle that was to be split between the two newly emerging nations (Perica, 2002). The third ethno-confessional bloc, the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina, lagged behind the nationalist movements in their Christian neighbors. Muslim nationalism as a mass movement would not mobilize until 1989-1990. The reasons are complex and many, for example, the senior Muslim clergy’s collaboration with the Titoist socialist system that highly valued interethnic and religious harmony and assigned to patriotic clergy a special responsibility for avoiding ethnic and confessional tensions (Perica, 2002, 74–89). In addition, Bosnian Muslims, compared with the other two major groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina, developed a relative moderation when playing with the fire of nationalistic politics. It comes from the Muslims’ awareness of their vulnerability in case of a civil war within Bosnia and Herzegovina as their only homeland in which they would be outnumbered by the two neighboring groups backed by the surrounding states of Serbia and Croatia historically aspiring on the territory in between.

As an ethno-nationalist mobilizing umbrella, the Islamic religious authority of Bosnia and Herzegovina caught up with the two Christian churches in the late 1980s when a hawkish nationalist-fundamentalist faction prevailed over the moderates. The Bosnian Muslim movement began in 1989 with the so-called “rebellion of the imams.” The clergy forced the pro-regime supreme religious authorities to step down, holding them responsible for the relative weakness of the Muslim movement against the Serb and Croat advancement and their declared territorial aspirations on territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The movement facilitated elections of a new Muslim leadership in which a number of religious nationalists took prominent positions. On several massive religious pilgrimages and nationalistic gatherings, this Bosnian-Muslim movement flexed its muscles by showing a large turnout, green flags, sabre-brandishing, and other elements of the Balkan Muslim folklore. A new religious leadership independent from the regime’s control was elected. These leaders called for a bolder assertion of Islamic image and tradition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as further emancipation of the Bosnians of Muslim heritage as a full-fledged nationality. Emulating historical revisionism in Serb and Croat movements, the Muslim movement insisted on reinterpretation of the five centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans, not as tyranny as it used to be written in history textbooks but as an era of greater civilization and religious tolerance.

To recapitulate the influence of religion during the last decade of socialist Yugoslavia and the prewar crisis, two moves undertaken by the two largest Christian churches seem most far-reaching. The first war the 1984 symbolic resurgence of Croatian national Catholicism and the counter-commemoration staged in response by the Serbian Orthodox church accusing Croatian Catholicism as a chief aide to the Croat pro-Axis regime that committed genocide against ethnic Serbs in Croatia which the Catholic Church denied. The second move, the 1987 statement by the Serbian Orthodox Church about the two largest branches of Christianity in Yugoslavia as “irreconcilable worlds” that could coexist peacefully only if separated into two different nation-states, one dominated by the Catholic Croats and the other by the Orthodox Church was basically a war manifesto and a blueprint for what would occur in the war of 1991-1995.

The multiparty elections of 1990 set the stage for a merger between clerical/religious and secular ethnic nationalisms. Croatian Catholicism backed two branches of the HDZ organized in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Serbian Orthodox Church supported various Serb ethnic parties in the region and initially recognized Milošević as an aspiring supreme political authority and unifier of the Serbs. The Bosnian Muslim religious organization endorsed the ethno-nationalist political party named the Party for Democratic Action (religious labels in political party names were banned in Bosnia and Herzegovina). The Bosnian Muslim nationalist Alija Izetbegović from Sarajevo was elected the party and movement leader. He secured support from the Muslim clergy and the Islamic religious authority—in fact, the religious organization and the political party had merged so that many clerics and religious dignitaries became party members and leaders. When Izetbegović was elected president of Bosnia and Herzegovina and moved toward the country’s independence, his main rival, the Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and his party, received arms and money from Serbia. Serb nationalist militia and fired at the crowd that marched for peace and national unity in Sarajevo on April 5, 1992, thus igniting a civil war. Karadžić planned a partition of the country fighting for a Serb territory “cleansed” of Muslims and Croats. He is at this writing the principal war criminal tried before the International Criminal Tribunal for the ICTY at The Hague. Yet the international community allowed the Serb territory to become a state within the state pursuing secessionist policies.

This merger between clerical and secular ethnic nationalistic movements is relevant for understanding the immediate prewar crisis. For example, clerical zealots such as the bishops Amfilohije and Atanasije of the Serbian Orthodox Church and secular nationalists such as the writer Dobrica Ćosić complemented each other. As early as 1987, the Serbian Orthodox Church invited through unofficial editorials in church press the church leaders of Croatian Catholicism to negotiate with Serb-Orthodox bishops and ethnic nationalist political leaders about the possible partition of Yugoslavia. A Serb church press editorial from 1987 proposed two spheres of influence with a greater Serbia in the eastern and central parts of the country and two western Catholic republics of Croatia and Slovenia in the rest of the territory. In 1989, Milošević exploited the religious-national jubilee of the 600th anniversary of the Kosovo battle to mention possible “armed battles for Serbia.” Through the 1991–1995 wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia from the summer of 1991 to the spring of 1992, the three ethno-confessional blocks were formed, each seeking their respective national states. The Dayton Accords of 1995 stopped the war, thus preventing the warring factions from pursuing territorial partitions based on maximalist claims that would likely result in prolonged strife and further genocidal crimes.

The Postwar Consolidation of Religious Nationalism

In the postwar period, the ethnic parties drew legitimacy from religion and mythical histories. Each new regime considered the 1991–1995 war to be a war of liberation fought against foreign aggression. Ethnic, political, and clerical leaders denied any responsibility in provoking war or committing genocidal crimes. Clergy commemorated victims of war crimes only from their own ethnic groups. They celebrated co-nationals as heroes, even in cases when international human rights groups and the ICTY indicted them and tried them as war criminals. All three religious organizations claimed to have been victims of genocide and implanted into new national identities the martyr-nation myth. So as the new state religions and ruling ethnic parties jointly celebrated these wars as defensive liberation wars, they were making it difficult for human rights advocates to search for facts and advance democracy by facing sincerely the truth about the wars’ causes, outcomes, perpetrators, and victims.

In post-Yugoslav states, their ethnic religious organizations have been promoted into national institutions, while other religious organizations and atheists were discriminated. Clergy receive state salaries. Newly constructed sacred buildings and monumental symbols mushroomed across the region, symbolically provoking each other. Religious holidays became state holidays. Religious instruction was introduced in public schools while religious lobbies blocked courses such as comparative religious culture and health education. A number of clergy in all three denominations preached against interethnic marriages, gay rights, and human rights groups critical of the new regimes’ corruption. These de facto established state religions also profited in the process of postsocialist redistribution of wealth.

Through war and transition, all religious organizations grew stronger. The Catholic Church in Croatia fared the best overall, relative to its principal rivals in the region. In the new Croatia, four treaties signed with the Vatican in 1998 made the Church de facto state religion and in some respects a force above the state exempt from some constitutional norms. Under these treaties, the Croat parliament is not even authorized for possibly amending or canceling them while the Catholic clergy are exempted from the country’s judicial system. Among other privileges, the Church receives annually the equivalent of US$60 million from taxpayers plus clerical and religious instructors’ salaries. Furthermore, a significant portion of nationalized property was restored to the church. The founding father of the nation, Franjo Tuđman, with the Church’s help, built a saintly charisma. He renounced his communist past, underwent a baptism and church wedding and was finally buried with the televised, emphatically religious spectacle in a pyramid-shaped mausoleum. Tuđman’s HDZ party even influenced changes in orthography of the Croatian language to dictate proper spelling of the church’s name in capital letters, which was never customary in Croat linguistics. The same “linguistic honor” was not granted to government or national cultural institutions.

The Islamic religious authorities in Bosnia saw a symbolic revival manifested conspicuously in newly built grandiose mosques from money donated from Muslim countries. Interestingly, these countries invested little in Bosnia’s economic recovery. In fact, one of the major postwar investments in the Balkans came from the United Arab Emirates and went to Serbia, which is widely considered the fountainhead of the aggression on Bosnian and Herzegovina in the 1991–1995 war. This wealthy Arab Muslim country first bought the national airliner in Serbia, although the Bosnian air career was also for sale, and then, in March 2014, shortly after the wave of protest in Bosnia and Herzegovina caused by a rampant poverty, the Emirates granted US$1 billion loan for recovery of Serbia’s national economy.

Nevertheless, throughout postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina a campaign for re-Islamization advanced in predominantly Muslim-populated areas. While calling for a unified country (i.e., against the Serb enclave) Muslim religious authorities actually advanced segregation and sectarianism. Imams rejected multicultural curricula in public schools and preached against interethnic and religiously mixed marriages earlier quite common in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Clergy also supported segregation in schools rejecting initiatives for reintegration. The reis ul-ulema as head of the Bosnian clerical elite repeatedly spoke against attempts to reverse the reality of school segregation and discouraged the faithful from interethnic marriages while at the same time nominating secularism as a major single threat. Although antisecularism has increased since the war in all major religions across the post-Yugoslav space, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become the main stage for conflict between radical clerical and secular tendencies. In April 2011, the chief executive body of the Islamic religious community—Rijaset, based in Sarajevo—released to the domestic and international public a document titled (translated from Bosnian by V. Perica): “First report on Islamophobia, Discrimination, and Intolerance in the Area under Authority of the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2004 to 2011.” While this forty-page document provides useful information about tense interfaith relations and excesses that reveal continuation of ethnic and sectarian hatred, it also shows that religious authorities struggle with accommodation to a pluralistic, democratic society. Bosnian Muslim leaders have been particularly angered by criticism of religious nationalism and clerical pressure on society communicated through mass media and public discourse by secular Muslims of Bosniak nationality (Rijaset, 2011, 22–27).

Regarding the crucial nationality–statehood question in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Islamic religious authorities are not unanimous. The key issue is whether to fight for a unified multiethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina within the present-day internationally recognized borders or seek alternative forms of nation-statehood. The ulema and practicing believers can be divided in three factions. The smallest of these include some clergy and believers nostalgic of the socialist era when Bosnian Muslim religious authorities, through pro-regime collaboration, secured a degree of religious autonomy and a (secular-type) Muslim nationhood in the socialist republic federated with the other five Yugoslav republics. This faction would fight for a unified Bosnia and Herzegovina within its present-day borders but without the current internal divisions. Another smaller bloc consists of extremist religious nationalists and followers of Islamist movements, who would reignite war in order avenge the shehids (martyrs) and Muslim victims of genocide while simultaneously trying to expel the two indigenous Christian groups in order to establish a large Islamic state under sharia law. The third, largest faction brings together followers of the late president Alija Izetbegović. He has been in western media described as a moderate Muslim which is only partly true if compared, say to what we now call “jihadists”. In truth Izetbegović was a Bosnian Muslim nationalist also influenced by the fundamentalist Islam of the late 1970s and 1980s. He e He published a manifesto envisioning partition of Yugoslavia and formation of a homogenous Muslim state in Bosnia that would according to his desire emulate the state of Pakistan. He did not advocate violence in order to achieve this goal because he believed that the Muslim community in Bosnia would outgrow and come to dominate the two Christian ethnic communities due to the Muslims’ high birth rate as opposed to a dramatic demographic decay in the neighboring Christian communities (Perica, 2002). Before and during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, Izetbegović secretly negotiated with Tuđman and Milošević a partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina within its prewar borders and formation of a Christian-free, smaller Islamic republic. He was prepared to cede portions of land to Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats who would be free to unite with their respective neighboring matrix nation-states. That is to say, in the Muslim population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the idea of a united multiethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina within the prewar borders did not enjoy a broad support. Among the Muslim clergy, only the small Yugoslavia-nostalgic ulema and a few faithful wanted to preserve Bosnia and Herzegovina as it used to be before the war. This faction was dominated by Bosnian secularists i.e. mostly urban Bosniaks and Bosnians prepared to form a multiethnic and multi confessional patriotic front and fight for a unified nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a secular society as it used to be under socialism but without the old regime’s restrictions of religious liberty.– In the history of the Yugoslav peoples, nationalist ideologies emerged in the 19th century mostly in secular forms. This secularist tendency also dominated in both Yugoslav states. It eventually gave way to religious nationalism and clerical politics in the post-Yugoslav ethno-confessional homogenous nations. Religion and nationalism would merge during the hardest times of ethnic feuds, war and violence. The two largest churches in the Yugoslav interwar kingdom confronted each amidst the country’s crisis leading to the collapse during the Axis invasion. The influence of religion on ethnic nationalist ideologies further grew strong during the Second World war when an ethnic civil war was fought mostly on territories of the present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The Axis invaders, like the preceding empires and occupiers of the Balkans, exploited religion to divide and rule. The domestic waethnic regimes such as the pro-Axis Croatia and the Serb collaborator general Nedić claimed religious legitimacy and sacred mission in the struggle against “godless” communism. Likewise, religious nationalism-seeking an independent Bosnia outside Yugoslavia also emerged during World War II. It continued as a small, underground faction during the socialist era trying to compete with mass-movements of Serbian and Croatian nationalism unsuccessfully until the late 1980s and early 1990s. The new politics today usually called “Islamism” has been imported to Bosnia and Herzegovina during the collapse of socialist Yugoslavia and especially in the Bosnian war. A number of Islamist and Wahhabi groups today can be found in the once exemplary secularized European Muslim community of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, in this country the most influential is still the Muslim nationalism articulated by Alija Izetbegović and his Muslim nationalist “Party for Democratic Action” – an equivalent to the Tuđman’s Croat nationalistic “HDZ” and the similar ethnic nationalist parties in Serbia. As the result of these parties’ policies and the ethnic armies’ war crimes, the postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina have become less ethnically and religiously diverse than ever in history. The city of Sarajevo, once a showcase of religious diversity is today predominantly Muslim with probably more newly built mosques since 1995 than during the four centuries of Ottoman rule. The people live in three virtually segregated ethnosectarian communities. Under the Dayton Accords and the postconflict international protectorate, the country is actually in the hands of ethnic and clerical bureaucracies funded by the international community. From Dayton to the present, these bureaucracies have grown so corrupt as to make the country ungovernable, while the capitalist transition has turned the once large industrial hub of socialist Yugoslavia into ruins. The situation prompted massive social protests that erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina in February 2014. The upheaval coincided with and was probably meant to remind the world public opinion of two landmark historical anniversaries: (a) the centennial of the Sarajevo assassination that triggered World War One (as a reminder of Bosnia’s rebellious potential) and (b) as reminiscences of a relatively happier, secular, more prosperous and united Bosnia and Herzegovina symbolized best by the Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games held thirty years ago.

The protesters’ slogans and demands showed that the old secular and multiethnic Bosnia is still surviving. At the rallies in Tuzla, Sarajevo, Mostar, and other urban centers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the people in the streets called for renewal of a united, secular, and economically productive multiethnic Bosnia as it was before the war. The slogans targeted as the country’s principal problems the criminal capitalist privatization facilitated by the corrupt domestic elites as well as the international intervention and mismanagement of the postwar Bosnia. The protesters in Sarajevo demanded, as Al Jazeera Balkans reported, that the international community specifically stop funding for the major ethnic political parties and religious organizations. Challenging the Dayton Accords under which the country is governed by representatives elected from the three major ethno-confessional blocs, the protesters demanded that free citizens as individuals elect candidates for public offices by merit and regardless of their ethnic background or religious (non)affiliation. This unveils a paradox in the Dayton regime imposed by the international community on Bosnia and Herzegovina as a hopeful instrument of conflict management. Misinterpreting the character of the war and unable to thwart assimilations and appropriations of Bosnians-Serbs and Bosnians-Croats, including the land on which they live by the neighboring Serbia and Croatia, the Dayton Accords created a self-destructive system and unwittingly legitimized the nationalists’ gains through war crimes. Dayton took for granted the newly constructed ethno-confessional categories turned into forms of nationhood as purportedly centuries-old “cultural facts,” forcing citizens to adhere to these categories in order to participate in the democratic process. It thus virtually killed Bosnia and Herzegovina as a unified republic imagined and designed under the SFRY constitution of 1974 as a common property and heritage of the three indigenous groups and thus unified made a separate nation-republic independent from the neighboring Serbia and Croatia. Small wonder that all ethnic nationalists welcomed Dayton as a rod to partition. Eventually, the American peacebuilding was proven to have been built on a benevolent mistake although Islamists usually see it as a final phase of the Western-Christian plan for the destruction of the only indigenous European nation with a Muslim majority. The prompt U.S. defense of the predominantly Muslim Albanian population of the Kosovo province against attempted Serbian genocide has failed to make up for Bosnia’s catastrophe, and Islamist propaganda created a cult of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a martyr-nation victim of the West.

Bosnia’s religious establishment’s response to February 2014 unrest was a meeting of the so-called Inter-religious Council, which released an abstract call for peace and specifically condemned only some protester groups’ violent acts in the streets. This otherwise discredited council is a Dayton system invention that grew close to the corrupt ethnic regimes and did little service to peace and reconciliation. One of the rare unanimous decisions by the religious leaders in this body was vetoing a proposed program for secular scholarly designed classes about religion in public schools. The only religious body that openly supported the protests recognized as a preeminently socially motivated movement driven by working people’s anger were the Franciscans of the Sarajevo-based “Silver Bosnia” province. Since the outbreak of the war, this monastic community spoke against excesses of the ethnosectarian nationalism in all religious and ethnic communities. The Franciscans also joined many other groups that called for a revision of the Dayton Accords. While Croatian government condemned these protests backing the Croat nationalists in western Herzegovina, the former Croatia’s president Stipe Mesić who was known for his anti-nationalist policies, publicized on March 7, 2014, in the divided city of Mostar a plan for a revision of the Dayton Accords. Under the Mesić plan, the country would be restructured into several ethnically mixed cantons and people would elect candidates not only from the three established ethno-confessional blocks but also among citizens who refuse to declare ethnicity-religious affiliation.

These Croats thus joined the Muslim majority which viewed the Dayton regime as an award to the prime movers of war and perpetrators of ethnic cleansing. Without Dayton there would be no “Serb Republic” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This state within a state sanctioned by Dayton was created by Serb ethnic armies through terror against non-Serb population including the Srebrenica genocide of July 1995. In addition, the Dayton Accords restructured the Bosnian multiethnic social fabric and communal relations formed through centuries, contrary to what the Dayton Accords designers usually allege, the Bosnian society’s cultural and ethno-national design as sanctioned by Dayton has not been “ancient” or “centuries-old” but newly constructed from the Dayton conference in 1995 through the international post-conflict management in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dayton did not recognize the Bosnian peoples’ right to self-determination but the outcome of war and genocide. The system imposed upon Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Dayton Accords and international post-conflict management, designed new national identities, created two feuding “states” and constructed three invented “ethno-national” communities. These were fused with religious communities whose leaders have been promoted into actual co-rulers to democratically elected or foreign-appointed authorities. This ethnic structure, religious institutions and “national” blocks never existed in such forms in the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. To all intents and purposes, the Dayton system and the international conflict management in Bosnia and Herzegovina have created blueprint for a new war. International observers and analysts of nation-building in post-conflict societies have noticed the Dayton system’s flaws and anticipated further social instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Gromes, 2009, 423-426). Among the domestic protesters in the recent Bosnian turmoil were also students of the University of Tuzla who, would described the Dayton regime as an “ethno-sectarian apartheid” constructed in Washington. It is not far from the truth that the Dayton system made too many concessions to the nationalists who brought the country into war and pre-planned genocide. And while representatives of the principal victims of this war condemn Dayton, the chief ideologue of Serb nationalism in Bosnia, historian Milorad Ekmečić (known for anti-Muslim and anti-Catholic scholarship and also overrating the role of religion in Bosnian history), acknowledged the Dayton Accords as the path toward partition and emancipation of Serbs. He publicly thanked the U.S. government and spoke about America as a traditional ally of the Serb people.

In Serbia, after the 1991-–995 war, religious nationalism did not ally with ethnic movements so quickly as in Croatia and Bosnia. This was so because the communist-turned nationalist Milošević tried to keep a secularist image and exclude clerical nationalists from the new structure of power. The Serbian Orthodox Church therefore agitated against Milošević for several reasons: although he did help the Serb ethnic regimes and armies during the 1991-1995 war, he eventually collaborated with the international peace process and therefore failed to create Greater Serbia according to the radical bishops’ expectations; furthermore, he neglected the Church regarding the issue of property restitution; and he did not promote it into a national institution and de facto co-ruler of the nation and he did not let the conservative nationalists share power in post-communist Serbia. Eventually, the Church turned openly against the Balkan tyrant and joined the opposition helping his fall from power in 2000. When Milošević was extradited to the ICTY, church leaders declared him “evil” and an unchanged communist. Only the zealot Archbishop Amfilohije sent to him in jail comforting letters and bibles. In contrast to Tuđman, Milošević showed no interest in church conversion. He died in the ICTY prison in 2006. However, Serbia’s bishops disliked pro-Western liberal policies inaugurated by the first post-Milošević leader, premier Zoran Đinđić. When he was assassinated in 2003, the Archbishop Amfilohije stated in his funeral speech that Điđnić essentially got what he deserved. The Church finally obtained the desired status under the new regime led by right-wing nationalist Vojislav Koštunica regime. Koštunica made the Church de facto a state religion, and clergy gained access to public schools and armed forces. Earlier, the Serbian Church fared better outside of Serbia (even in Croatia after Tuđman, where the regime allowed and even funded the rebuilding of church resources and return of the clergy). The Serbia church fared especially well in the so-called Serb Republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This was a “Serb-only” territory created through ethnic cleansing by the armies of the principal war criminals, the top Serb leader psychiatrist Radovan Karadžić and his military commander former communist General Ratko Mladić. This enclave even stated in a constitution that the Serbian Orthodox Church was a state religion while other domicile faiths were discriminated against, but the High Representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina overruled this constitutional provision.

Eventually, Serbia, which used to have the largest number of atheists in socialist Yugoslavia, according to the census of 2012, boasted 94 percent of citizens were religious believers, mostly (84 percent) members of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In this converted Serbia, religious festivals, saints, and anniversaries have become state-sponsored patriotic rituals. The Church receives annual governmental financial assistance for clerical salaries and catechism programs, although not enough to complete one of the world’s largest Orthodox cathedrals—Saint Sava’s Memorial Temple in Belgrade. In 2011, Serbia introduced military chaplains in its armed forces and spiritual advisors in its gendarmerie, most of whom were Orthodox priests.

A similar type of religiosity developed in postwar Croatia. A sociological survey conducted in the Zagreb region in 2004 showed that the number of self-declared Catholics in Croatia rose from about 65 percent in 1989 to 90 percent in 2004. This rising religiosity was accompanied by a sharp decline in the number of nonreligious (atheists, agnostics, and those who refused to declare)—from about 30 percent in 1989 to only 8 percent in 2004. As public religiosity increased, the average believer’s knowledge of religious teachings and church matters remained poor. A survey conducted in 2000 showed a poor quality of religious culture. Accordingly, 81 percent of the polled who said they were Catholics never or rarely read the Bible and less than 1 percent read the Bible daily, while about 90 percent of Croat Catholics never heard of the Second Vatican Council (Perica, 2006). Similar ignorance about the essential tenets of faith can be found among Serbs regarding Eastern Orthodox Christianity and among Bosnian Muslims regarding Islam. In fact, for a majority of people in all three communities, religion is above all the marker of national identity and a public affair so that it is hard to say in this art of the world where religious symbols and rhetoric dominate how many people are actually religious (Đorđević, 2010; Vukomanović and Abazović, 2013).

Furthermore, in Croatia, the bishops put pressure on state-run TV, seeking more time and funding for religious programs. In 2012, as the national TV house announced it had spent for religious programs an equivalent of about US$300,000—incidentally about US$50,000 less than that allocated to public schools’ educational programing. It still did not improve religious culture. Thus according to polls shown on TV on the occasion of the feast of Corpus Christi, most Croat Catholics are unable to explain the meaning of the feast, although since the 1990s it has been made a state holiday. Meanwhile, the hottest religious topics in the media are news about church trials of pedophile priests and clergymen sentenced to prison for embezzlement of parish funds. While the bishop’s conference ignores these excesses and a church court passes light sentence (penitence and fasting) to a priest found to have sexually abused children, a militant bishop tries to divert public focus calling for lustration of what he calls “sons of the communists” who allegedly rule the country. Yet, whoever rules Croatia today, it fears and favors the national Church. For example, under Social Democrats in power since 2012, government’s austerity policies aimed at curbing economic recession have drastically cut down salaries and funding for state bureaucracy and key social services but spared the Church, whose annual income of about 1 billion in the national currency (US$250 million) from state budget has remained intact since the 1998 signing for the treaties with the Vatican. While the bishops remain silent about this, a number of critics, including some clerical insiders, speak about the Church’s hypocrisy and corruption. Nonetheless, no one in the political establishment dares to challenge clerical privileges. On the contrary, political elites compete for the bishops’ favor. For example, the first political move by the recently appointed new Croatia’s education secretary in a left-center coalition government, was to pay lip service to the Catholic episcopate. This politician went to consult the Cardinal Archbishop of Zagreb about whether to introduce civic and health education curricula in public schools in spite of the fact that the bishops repeatedly voiced an uncompromising hostility toward the very idea of such curricula. Meanwhile the episcopal elite holds onto power and exercises ideological monopoly; it is feared and hated by a majority of ordinary people although many opportunistically pretend loyalty to the Church. These tendencies have affected the character of religiosity in Croatia. Although the official Church and the government bureau of statistics continued to cite the alleged 86 percent of practicing Catholics in Croatia, independent media have recently revealed different data. Drawing from the Gallup global surveys of religiosity conducted from 2006 to 2008, an influential independent internet portal alleges that the number of Croats who consider religion important in their lives is about 66,5 percent (not all of the surveyed are Catholics), yet, the number of polled Croatia’s citizens who consider religion irrelevant is 30,5 percent while in the neighboring Serbia this number is even higher: 46,5 per cent (, 2014).

However, this kind of religiosity in which the ideology dominates the theology did not secure stable Church–state relations even though the two institutions have shared basically the same ethnic nationalistic nationalist ideology. The clerical elites often challenged democratically elected governments if their policies did not suit religious leaders’ political affinities or economic interests. Generally speaking, none of the three major religious organizations has sincerely accepted liberal democracy. Clerical elites more or less clearly indicate what politics they prefer and what they disapprove or openly hate and demonize. Religious leaders reluctantly accept electoral outcomes if they do not meet religious elites’ expectations, or even, as in the case of post-Tudman Croatia, the Church, facing elected government, which the bishops have attacked during election campaigns, back forces plotting nothing less than a coup d’ etat (Perica, 2006). In Serbia, the Orthodox Church, initially supported Milošević and then turned against him only to resist the succeeding liberal reformer In Croatia after Tuđman, Catholic bishops have been in a state of war with the Socialist Democratic Party when it was in power. Some bishops even backed right-wing groups led by retired generals and war veterans plotting a forcible unconstitutional regime change. Croatia’s Catholic Church backed the Tuđman unconditionally during his nine-year rule and continued supporting his successor Ivo Sanader. In 1998. Tudman signed with the Vatican four treaties, which made the Church a state within the state operated by a set of laws above the constitution. After the brief rule by the left-center coalition, the Church strongly backed the corrupt regime led by Tuđman’s political heir Ivo Sanader, who, as a practicing Catholic, enjoyed the bishops’ special trust. In 2014 he was sentenced to nine years in prison for corruption and the HDZ party was also found guilty. Accordingly, the Church as one of major beneficiaries of the HDZ-managed privatization is accountable if not legally than at least morally and socially, but no bishop or other church source admitted to this or condemned Sanader’s crimes. Instead the Church has openly opposed Croatian Social Democrats in power since 2012. When in 2012 the government stopped sponsoring annual commemorations of the 1945 Tito’s army vindictive justice against the Croat fascist prisoners of war, the bishops protested. Since then, the Church has led a commemoration for the defeated on the Austrian-Slovenian border where battles took place at the end of World War II. Meanwhile the bishops ignored annual state-sponsored commemorations for victims of the fascist-run concentration camp at Jasenovac. Since the election of the liberal Pope Francis, the Vatican has, according to media reports, pressured Croatian episcopate to ease church-state tensions. The episcopate was split: while some bishops invited the incumbent left-center government for a dialogue, others remained adamant. Zealots such as the bishop of Sisak, the bishop-military vicar and the archbishops of Zagreb and Split, maintained militant rhetoric. For example, they recently have called for a ban on the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in Croatia. For these Croat churchmen, it is the symbol of the Serb enemy and the hated “Byzantine” culture of Orthodox Christianity. Yet Pope John Paul II viewed the Cyrillic alphabet as an instrument of unification of Western and Eastern Europe and the two branches of Christianity. As this pope of Slavic ancestry insisted in his 1985 encyclical, this alphabet remains important component of the Slavic people’s and Christianity’s common heritage deriving from the early medieval Slavonic apostles, saints Cyril and Methodius.

Concurrently, on the Eastern front, the Serbian Orthodox Church remains a pillar of ethnonationalism, both in terms of providing discourse and as an institutional communication channel for the right-wing opposition. Demanding “liberation” of the Kosovo province (now a sovereign country internationally recognized by more than fifty states), restitution of church property, higher clerical salaries, greater state funding for the grandiose Saint Sava’s Temple, and so forth, the Church also lobbied for foreign policy establishment of Serbia in favor of building a Serbo-Russian “special relationship.” The “memory battles” agenda also remains among the Church’s priorities. The Church backs Serb clerical nationalists organized as fascist-styled groups that disrupt gay rights and antinationalist rallies. The Church and the nationalist organizations also back right-wing groups that filed court actions for posthumous rehabilitations of World War II chief Serb criminals, such as the Chetnik movement leader general Mihailović and the pro-Nazi puppet regime chairman general Nedić. Even the established Church–state symbiosis was marred by the 2013 clerical protests against government’s tacit recognition of an independent Kosovo in exchange for Serbia’s European Union candidate country status. Church zealots openly protested this, trying again to mobilize Serbs around “Serbian Jerusalem,” even though the threat this time came from Belgrade rather than from the Kosovo Albanians. However, on the occasion of the 1700th anniversary of the Edict of Milan, the Church called for unity and cooperation between Church and state in Serbia. In October 2013, at the southern Serbian city of Niš as birthplace of the Emperor Constantine, the government and the Holy Synod cosponsored concluding ceremonies of the official program to mark the seventeenth centennial of the Edict of Milan. The grand anniversary was closed at the National Theatre in Belgrade, with the premiere of the opera In hoc signo. The celebration indicated Church leaders’ desire to reinforce the holy bond between Church and state to emphasize Serbia’s Eastern Christian tradition. Last but not least, while consolidating the new religious nationalism and the Serb-Orthodox national identity of the Serbs in Serbia and in the Serb diaspora in the neighboring countries, the Patriarchate of Serbia also backs the local Orthodox Churches in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in their continuing disputes with Catholics and Muslims over recent history. For example, in Croatia, the Serbian Orthodox Church commemorates at the site of the Jasenovac concentration camp what it views as Croat-perpetrated genocide against Serbs in World War II. The Croat Catholic establishment denies genocide and repels this view of history while commemorating Croats-victims of communist crimes (according to Croat clerical nationalists these “godless communists” were mostly ethnic Serbs) and also Croats-victims of Serb war crimes during the 1991-1995 war. Simultaneously in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Islamic religious authority commemorates what it views as the genocide at Srebrenica in committed in 1995 by Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. The Serbian Orthodox Church denies it was a genocide and commemorates ethnic Serbs-victims of massacres and war crimes (needless to say that each war crimes is considered a part of genocide) committed by Bosnian Muslims during World War II and in the recent Bosnian war of 1992-1995. These mutually provoking commemorations have been continuing since the 1980s (Perica, 2002). Concurrently, the emphasis on the theme of genocide in history and the politics of genocide in service of the new nationalism and inter-ethnic struggles, have been prominent in the history of socialist Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslav nations ever since the 1970s (Sindbaek, 2013).

To summarize and update the analysis of the crisis during the postwar period, the following points could be singled out as particularly relevant. The major religious institutions and ethnic nationalist regimes in the newly founded western Balkan states share power in the nations constructed recently through war. The substance of the new patriotic ideology legitimized by religion is a mythologized history of the purportedly ancient nations finally liberated thanks to the national churches and their allied political parties. However, the reinvent ancient and especially the newly constructed consecrated historical myths have extend the conflict with neighboring communities with different interpretations of the same shared historical experience. In addition, there is a parallel conflict in each of these communities between religious nationalism and secular forces associated with an emerging civil society that have been critical of both the conflicting myths and the strong clerical influence on society, especially when religious authorities are funded by the state. Religiosity has increased at a face value and according to strongly visible religious symbolism and rhetoric in public spaces. In reality, a high percentage of self-declared believers is the result of the nationalistic mobilization carried out jointly by religious elites and new regimes. In addition to this largely opportunistic adherence to the new patriotism fused with religious identity, several other factors must be taken into account, such as wartime and postwar migrations and expulsions of ethnic and religious minorities and also the disappearance of earlier prominent groups from the socialist era such as atheists or Yugoslavs by nationality. Among the three observed religious organizations, the Catholic Church of Croatia has emerged through war and postwar crisis as relatively the most influential within its own ethno-confessional nation and also the wealthiest via privatization. In addition, Croat Catholic establishment in Croatia is the most extreme clerical nationalistic force in the region (in the 1980s and during the war it was the Serbian Orthodox Church). The Serbian Orthodox Church in Serbia and the Islamic religious authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina maintain social influence thanks to the new ideologies and the privilege of being virtually state religions within their ethnic nation-states, but the two face a relatively stronger secularist forces than national Catholicism in the clericalist Croatia. Regarding mutual relations between these organizations, the use of terms from mass media discourse such as hatred and deep-seated enmity would not be an exaggeration provided it is not applied to the entire history. A bitter hatred can be observed in the two largest Christian Churches. In addition to the ritual support to the newly constructed patriotic myths that reinforce boundaries between the two otherwise similar groups sharing a common language and historical experience, the clerical elites also put in the service of the new politics canonical instruments such as saint-making. Two prominent nationalistic churchmen, namely the Croat Catholic Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac and the Serb Orthodox Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic, have been adorned with saintly auras and while being worshiped as heroes in their own community, they are demonized by the other group. Through these cults the two main churches in the post-Yugoslav space constructed conflicting myths about recent history, thus cementing enmity and fueling hatred. According to these cults and accompanying myths, the two communities view each other as perpetrators of genocide. The regimes in Zagreb and Belgrade followed the bishops’ example by initiating mutual lawsuits for genocide in the 1991–1995 war. The trial has begun in March 2014 before the United Nations’ International War Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the Hague. Most recently, as the Vatican announced the possibility of Stepinac’s canonization, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irenej, unveiled in an interview to the leading national daily newspaper in Serbia that his Church was opposing this canonization. He has allegedly sent a protest letter to Pope Francis in which the Serbian Church argues that Stepinac was a vocal anti-ecumenical, particularly anti-Orthodox zealot and, as the Archbishop of Zagreb, also responsible for the genocide against Serbs in Croatia during the World War II. Such individuals, in the view of the Serbian Orthodox church, cannot become saints of Christianity regardless of what church canonizes them. In the meantime, the Serbian Orthodox Church competes via commemorations with Croat Catholicism and Bosnian Islam regarding the contesting perspectives on the history of the ethnic civil wars and genocide in World War II and the war of 1991-1995. While in the same period historians and jurists have not yet determined if a single case of genocide indeed happened in the history of the Croats, Serbs and Bosnians and why their mutual wars were fought, the politics of conflict and genocide as crucial elements of the ethnic and religious nationalisms have precipitated new wars and extended the conflict down to this day with likelihood that it will not extinguish in the future. Concurrently, the peoples and political regimes under consideration have implemented and tested various ideologies and approaches to social and national development but evidently failed to build a framework for sustainable economic and political progress. The longest period of a relative social stability, economic prosperity and interethnic harmony in the century-long history of Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav states, lasted approximately from the 1960s to the mid-1980s under a regime that was emphatically secular though less antireligious compared to the historically corresponding regimes of the similar type and that restrictions on religious liberty indisputably diminished to the point of a virtual freedom in the late 1980s (Perica, 2002). The Balkan wars of the 1990s were neither inevitable nor predetermined because of an extremely complicated interethnic imbroglio. Tragedy could have been averted and the communist federation restructured the Czechoslovakian way. The religions under consideration could have come out of the Yugoslav multiethnic experience as better religions with better and more humane believers, or at least like religions or East European countries such as, say, Poland, Czechoslovakia, or even Bulgaria. Contrary to the late Cold War political and media cliché, the Yugoslav conflict might have not erupted due to a sudden loosening of the purportedly earlier firm communist grip on power, but because of the systemic liberalization initiated in the 1960s that empowered the destructive social forces including religious nationalism. The ethno-clerical nationalists first took part in the making of an unnecessary and costly war for dissolution of the communist federation (which had otherwise earlier prepared the mechanism for a peaceful transfer into a confederate arrangement). Simultaneously they engaged into another senseless war for the founding of the ethnic nations in a Balkanized space., Posing at first as anti-communist counter-revolutionaries in the name of a greater religious liberty, the same forces transferred the malignant religious nationalism with its spite, hate, sectarian mindset and theocratic ambitions into post-communist democracies thus undermining democratic transitions as well. The international community’s recognition of the post-Yugoslav national restructuring as designed by the nationalists through war crimes and religious nationalist clerical elites as partners in the Balkan peace process and social forces entrusted with conflict management, reconciliation, power-sharing and national recovery, has been a mistake and blueprint for another war.

Healing Nations and Saving Religions’ Face

To recapitulate, before the recent Balkan wars, under the socialist system in Yugoslavia during the reform era from the 1960s and the 1970s, religion was less active in the public sphere but also less extremist nationalistic. Thanks to the peaceful cohabitation with a secularist regime in a pluralistic society, all religions considerably rebuilt resources and even started developing interfaith dialogue and culture of tolerance (Perica, 2002, 43–123). However, through the prewar ethnic nationalist mobilization movements in which the religions collaborated with ethnic nationalists and also pursued a public agenda of their own, and, during the war and postwar period in the new ethnically and religiously homogenous states with religious monopolies, these religions have undergone changes of character while also influencing sociohistorical change. Supporting nationalistic ideologies with the religious-symbolic arsenal, the nationalized religions fueled hatred into interethnic and interfaith relations; became involved in a conflict featuring genocide and massive war crimes; took part in the improper postsocialist privatizing of the former people’s wealth; and eventually shared the transitional societies’ experience of moral decay, corruption, and failure of democratization.

However, there is still a way to conclude on a more positive note provided the focus shifts from religious elites and institutions to the role of individuals who contributed to conflict prevention, democratization, and postconflict healing efforts. Since 2000, as the major ethnic nationalist leaders left politics and transitional societies have seen a gradual democratization, postconflict healing efforts and civil society activism have grown. The growth of civil society is manifested through various humanitarian and conciliatory efforts by human rights activist groups and nongovernmental organizations, the founding of peace studies programs, interfaith dialogue initiatives, and so forth. Ecumenical associations and “faith sodalities” (Goodwin, 2006) have assisted with recovery of the victims of war and promoted interfaith and historical dialogues, humanitarian and reconciliation programs, and peace education. As Europeanization made progress in southeastern Europe, civil society activism and postconflict healing programs have received greater support and publicity from abroad and from domestic liberal circles. Democratizing currents to some extent also influenced religious life. Liberal believers and clerical dissidents received media attention, speaking critically of religious leaders’ policies. In several highly publicized cases, dissident believers, human rights advocates, and liberal media revealed clerical corruption scandals, embezzlement of church funds, and priestly sexual abuse cases in the two largest churches in the region.

Moreover, in the shadow of the clerical nationalism in the Balkans, a number of clergy and activist believers of majority and minority faiths have all the time worked for peace. The late Catholic bishop Srečko Badurina of Šibenik, Croatia, was one of the pioneers of this religious peacemaking. During the first fatal clashes in Croatia in 1991, Bishop Badurina went on conflict-preventing missions in Croat and Serb villages across his diocese and during the war continued with humanitarian and peace work. Presumably the boldest and most consistent critics of religious and ethnic nationalism have been the Franciscans of the Silver Bosnia province. Their leaders such as Petar Andjelović, Ivo Marković, and Ivan Šarčević and the members of the faculty in the Franciscan Higher Theological School in Sarajevo such as Marko Oršolić, Drago Bojić and Petar Jeleč, among others, resisted ethnic nationalism and its religious derivates both as educators and social activists. Their School of Theology at Sarajevo and the monthly review Light of the Word provided a systematic critique of the nationalistic movements in the Balkans portrayed as carriers of an ideology in conflict with Christianity. As antiwar and human rights activists the Franciscans sided with the principal victims of war: refugees, families’-survivors of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and a growing number of the poor regardless of their religious affiliation. The Franciscans of the Silver Bosnia province have been not only spiritual guardians for Bosnian Catholics but also symbols of Bosnia’s unique patriotism and builders of peaceful coexistence across ethnic and sectarian divisions. These present-day ethnic Croats and also declared Bosnians-Croats have earned such confidence from the country’s majority Muslim community and also from moderate Orthodox Serbs, secularists, and atheists that after the 1991–1995 war citizens named Franciscan leaders as candidates for state presidency, but the friars could not accept it due to their order’s regulations prohibiting clerics to execute political offices. Last, the Serb Orthodox lay theologian Mirko Đorđević saved the face of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This prolific writer and public speaker has criticized religious nationalism within his Church and ethnic militancy in Serbia for more than two decades. Although the clerical establishment chose to ignore his activism to reduce his influence, Đorđević’s columns and publications have been influential across the entire post-Yugoslav space nevertheless. In sum, these religious peace and human rights activists impartially analyzed the causes and outcomes of the war, visited communities in conflict trying to prevent violence, named the warmongers and nationalistic hawks arguing against their theses, spoke publicly in conciliatory terms promoting interfaith tolerance, and called for preservation of the prewar state borders and multiethnic structure in traditionally pluralistic provinces. Most important, they explicitly condemned religious nationalism in their own organizations, which, for example in the case of the Franciscans of Silver Bosnia, resulted in conflicts with the criticized Church authorities and clerical nationalist hawks. Most recently a number of reconciliation initiatives and practices have been initiated from various religious circles. For example, in 2012 and 2013, the Serb-Orthodox bishop of Herzegovina, Grigorije, and the Catholic bishop of Dubrovnik, Croatia, Monsignor Mate Uzinić, accompanied by a number of Catholic and Serb-Orthodox clergy from their dioceses, participated in well-received joint interfaith prayers for peace and tolerance that took place in the historic city of Dubrovnik.

Regarding faith-based, conflict-mitigating activities, one needs to distinguish between religious leaders’ diplomacy and autonomous faith-based enthusiasts. The former exemplifies the role of organized religion as a real social and political force, and the latter unveils its believers’ passion and idealism. Thus, sporadically, religious leaders would release statements against violence, extremism, and corruption. These statements were abstract and never openly self-critical. This is example of an ambivalent clerical diplomacy or political maneuvering insofar as the same clergy also championed and legitimized nationalism. Nevertheless, such moves produced, at least symbolically, positive social sentiments and conciliatory effects. Examples of this clerical diplomacy include sporadic condemnation of violence and expressions of sympathy for all victims of war, which almost all religious leaders have proclaimed occasionally ever since the outbreak of war. The three papal visits to the region during the 1990s could also be viewed in this light. The papal rhetoric included appeals for peace, invitations to other religious readers for ecumenical meetings, and once even admonition against nationalistic extremism, but concurrently, the papal visits bolstered Croatian Catholic nationalism and legitimized the legacies of the Tuđman regime. In the wake of the papal visits, the Serbian Orthodox Church would release abstract diplomatic statements welcoming any peace initiative. At the same time, Serb church leaders spoke publicly that the Vatican’s major goal was to reinforce Croat nationalism and strengthen the influence of Catholicism in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, in the eyes of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Vatican remains hostile to the Serbs as ever. The Serbian Orthodox Church’s relations with the Vatican continue to be tense. Although a papal visit to Belgrade has been recently proclaimed desirable by both the Vatican and Serb church leaders, this may become possible, as Serbian leading churchmen announced, only provided the circumstances in the region markedly change and interests of Serbs outside of Serbia are preserved.

Among the faith-based enthusiasts, several religious scholars from Christian denominations of Protestant tradition have made important contributions to the understanding of the role of religion in the concrete conflict while also working actively on postwar reconciliation among wartime enemies. For example, the Serbian-born American Methodist scholar Paul Mojzes (Mojzes, 1994, 1998), and the Croatian Evangelical theologian and prominent ecumenical advocate, Peter Kuzmič. Since the 1990s, Mojzes and Kuzmič with their associates, have been instrumental in numerous forms of objective scholarship, interfaith dialogue and reconciliation efforts. Among other, forms of faith-based peace and reconciliation activism from religious minorities in the post-Yugoslav states, the Sarajevo-based ecumenical association Post-Yugoslav Peace Academy, founded by American Mennonite missionaries, which has promoted interfaith dialogue and peace education for nearly fifteen years, deserves special mention. This association succeeded in bringing together representatives of all faiths and ethnicities from the region while inaugurating in those countries previously unknown forms of peace education and conflict management. Numerous similar faith-based and ecumenical interfaith nongovernmental organizations have become active since 1995 in almost all of the post-Yugoslav states. These activists come from minority faiths, as well as large, established religions. According to an ecumenical conflict-managing organization, the Center for Studies of Religion, Politics and Society, from Novi Sad, Serbia, activist believers from majority faiths demanded more autonomy from their supreme religious authorities.

However, the symbolic power of religion in the service of promoting reconciliation and interfaith tolerance has not yet been appropriately exploited. The key reasons remain the major religious leaders’ unwillingness to abandon the newly constructed “national interests” and their roles of guardians and virtual co-rulers of the new nations. Hypothetically speaking, a top-level interfaith joint commemoration led by supreme religious authorities and dedicated to all victims of war would be helpful. Interfaith commemorations at relevant memory sites, even as mere symbolic acts without explicit proclamations pertaining to the conflicting interpretations of history and other interethnic controversies, would gradually melt the distrust among the conflict-torn communities. These “positive commemorations”, ecumenical meetings and interfaith dialogue would create equilibrium created by the nearly three decades-long absence of sincere interfaith communication and by the mutually provoking symbolic politics of self-pity and blame of the other. Positive commemorations and interfaith communication have been envisioned and hoped for in moderate religious circles and among secular peace activists.


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