Bosnia's Serbs and Muslims wrangle over Jews' holy book

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BOSNIA'S SERBS and Muslims are engaged in an ill-tempered struggle over one of the Balkan state's holiest and most fragile treasures, the sixth- century Haggadah.

The Jewish sacred book was brought to Sarajevo after the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and received sanctuary in the more tolerant atmosphere of Bosnia, then a "vilayet", or province, of the Ottoman empire. Since then a Jewish community speaking Ladino, akin to medieval Spanish, lived in harmony with the city's mostly Muslim population until the Bosnian war of the 1990s, after which most Bosnian Jews quit the ruins for Israel.

Now the Bosnian Serbs, who make up about a third of Bosnia's population but control nearly half the republic's territory, want a third share in the treasure. They are not asking for a literal division of the book, which would mean tearing out more than 30 of the 109 pages, but a third ownership, meaning that it would spend a third of its time in the Bosnian Serb metropolis of Banja Luka in Bosnia's North-west.

The Sarajevo Haggadah has won an important place in the hearts of many Bosnians in recent decades, a significance that transcends the book's literal value. It is an emblem of the state's antiquity, its multi-cultural traditions and, in some ways, of the nation's survival.

In the Second World War the Nazi occupiers of Yugoslavia made great efforts to hunt down the Haggadah, which was smuggled out of the Sarajevo museum in the nick of time by the museum's Croat and Muslim curators and hidden in the hills until the war was over. After liberation in 1945 it returned to the city.

When Sarajevo was besieged by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992 and the museum was bombarded, the Haggadah was removed under shellfire and hidden in the vaults of the National Bank, being brought out briefly for display in the 500th anniversary celebrations of city's Jewish community in 1993.

Thus, at a time when Bosnia's Jewish community is but a shadow of its former self, the city's most famous Jewish text has, ironically, never been more famous or more sought after.

Jakob Finci, the head of the Jewish Community organisation, is reported as saying that the manuscript ought to remain in the capital, principally because Bosnia's Christian communities, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats, showed such scant respect for their rival's cultural and religious monuments. "They [the Serbs] blew up the Ferhadija, the others blew up the Old Bridge," Mr Finci said, referring to the 16th- century mosque blown up by the Serbs in Banja Luka and the Ottoman bridge in the southern city of Mostar blown up by the Croats. The two buildings were among Bosnia's greatest architectural treasures.

"Now, everybody wants his own museum," Mr Finci added. "The Haggadah is proof of the multi-ethnicity in Bosnia. It is a testament that even in worst of times, other [people's] values were not destroyed."