SARAJEVO, Bosnia, April 25 (JTA) – In a country riven by ethnic violence during the past decade, leaders from Bosnia’s three main religious communities joined this week with Jewish officials to lay the cornerstone for a synagogue and Jewish cultural center.
Bosnian Muslim, Croat and Serb religious leaders joined local Jews and international officials at Tuesday’s ceremony in the Bosnian city of Mostar.
The project is believed to be the first synagogue built from the ground up in the Balkans since World War II. A new synagogue was inaugurated last year in Skopje, Macedonia, but it is located in the Jewish community building.
“The Mostar synagogue is an important symbol of new life – not just for Jews, but for the whole country,” said Jakob Finci, president of the Bosnian Jewish community.
“It is especially important that it is being built in a small town that was sharply divided between Muslims and Croats and heavily damaged during the war in the 1990s,” he said.
Mostar’s Jewish community has only about 45 members. Its leader, Zoran Mandlbaum, became a local hero during the Bosnian war for his non-sectarian humanitarian work. His efforts were crucial in getting the synagogue project off the ground.
Construction of the three-story complex will be financed by Mostar municipal authorities, who pledge to complete the building next year.
The complex is located just 100 yards from the site of the famous 16th- century stone bridge at Mostar that was destroyed by Croat mortar fire in November 1993.
The bridge is to be rebuilt under the auspices of UNESCO. Mostar officials say they hope the synagogue and bridge can be inaugurated at the same time.
In addition to the synagogue, the Jewish complex will include a cultural center open to members of all faiths.
“A synagogue in itself is open one day a week,” Finci said. “But the culture center will be open three days a week. We hope it will be a wonderful meeting point for Christians, Muslims and Jews to learn how similar and close we are, all children of one God.”
Taking part in the cornerstone-laying ceremony were a Serbian Orthodox archbishop, the deputy Catholic bishop of Mostar and an Islamic official, the chief imam of Mostar.
The ceremony was the first time in several months that senior officials of Bosnia’s three main religions joined together, Finci said.
In addition, Mostar’s Croat mayor and Muslim deputy mayor attended, along with a number of foreign ambassadors and other senior diplomats.
“It seems as if the Jews are the only glue that can bring together these groups,” quipped one senior western official who attended.
American representatives did not attend, however. This was because of a travel ban to Mostar and surrounding areas that the United States imposed on American officials after violent riots by Croat extremists erupted there earlier this month.
Ironically, the travel ban prevented a 10-member delegation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee currently visiting Bosnia from attending the ceremony.
JDC officials said that, as an American delegation, the group had to bow to the security directives of the U.S. Embassy and State Department.
This month’s riots were the worst violence in Bosnia since the 1995 Dayton Accord ended the Bosnian civil war.
During the clashes, international officials were taken hostage, and up to two dozen international peacekeepers were injured in battles with Croat separatists.