Balkan Religious Leaders Vow to Use Their Voice to Fight Hatred

Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders from the former Yugoslavia and other Balkan countries have set up a permanent interreligious committee to instill reconstruction efforts in the war-torn region with a spiritual dimension.

Following a one-day meeting here on Tuesday, they stressed that education was needed to prevent “religious and cultural hostility.”

Citing “the power of religious leaders through the `word’ spread to the faithful,” they called upon “the integrity of the religious leaders throughout the region to speak with courage to their fellow believers, to turn the grief and feeling of loss into a catalyst which will heal what has been hurt and build what has been destroyed.”

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

“We hope that the steering committee will convene in September,” said EJC Secretary-General Serge Cwajgenbaum. “We hope that this endeavor will help reinforce the religious leadership to counter extremist politicians.”

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

Participants included the president of the Islamic community in Macedonia, the Roman Catholic vicar-general of Sarajevo, Serbian Orthodox bishops and the rabbi of Zagreb, Croatia.

“This was one of a series of meetings not just of religious leaders, but of non-governmental organizations and businesses trying to explore the possibility of cooperation in southeastern Europe,” Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, told JTA.

“We Jews are trying to play the role of honest broker,” he said. “We’re the only ones without territorial or power claims. Having been victims so many times in our history, we know how difficult and important it is to forgive and to create normal relations, especially in a region as fragile as the Balkans.”

The past decade of nationalist conflict in the former Yugoslavia has had strong religious overtones.

Religious faith is deeply associated with national or ethnic identity. Serbs follow the Serbian Orthodox faith, Croats are Roman Catholic, Kosovars are mainly Muslim — and the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina are divided among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Religious shrines and places of worship, including monasteries, mosques and churches, have been deliberately targeted by warring sides.

Hamad Mustapha, secretary of the faculty of Islamic Studies in Skopje, Macedonia, told JTA that political tensions surfaced during the meeting but “we found common language that we should start to know each other better and work more for peace and tolerance. Our region needs this obligation more than ever before.”

The object of Tuesday’s meeting was to discuss the role and responsibility of religious leaders in promoting dialogue and cooperation against this poisoned background.

The participants agreed that religious groups should speak out against violence aimed at other religious groups and should support victims of such aggression.

“Religious communities in the Balkans have a very great influence, not only among believers, but in the larger sense of society,” said Irinej Bulovic, the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Backs. But, he added, “There has been a misuse of religious feelings.”

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