Religious nettles still choke the 'garden full of different flowers'

Balkans/ church responsibility
Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS THE Balkan crisis deepens, the international Orthodox Church has emerged as a main support for the Serbs. Holy Russia, which sent an army to fight for the Serbs in the first Bosnia-Hercegovina crisis of 1875-78, is cheering them on today. The Greeks, heirs of the Eastern Empire at Constantinople, have sent a fraternal mission to Pale, the capital of the Bosnian Serbs, whose leader, Radovan Karadzic, loves to recite ballads about Serbian saints.

Religious conflict goes back to the time when Bosnia was a disputed land between the Catholic Church in Rome and the Orthodox Church in Constantinople. The Great Schism of 1054 concerned the "Filioque clause" on the nature of the Trinity, but Constantinople also disliked such Roman innovations as the celibacy of the clergy, and the shaving of priests' beards.

To complicate matters, Bosnia was home to a Manichean sect, the Bogomils, regarded as forerunners of Protestantism, who were persecuted by both Christian churches and later converted to Islam.

The Orthodox Church kept the Serb nation alive through 500 years of Ottoman rule, and instilled resentment against fellow Slavs who became Muslim. The Serb poet Petat Njegos, a 19th-century prince-bishop of Montenegro, celebrated the massacre of a Slav Muslim village:

So tear down minarets and mosques,

Kindle the Serbian yule logs,

And paint the Easter eggs.

The Orthodox Church inspired Serbia's wars against the Ottoman Empire, and the defence of Belgrade against Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914- 15. In March 1941, when the Yugoslav government signed a treaty with Hitler, the patriarch of the time denounced the deal. A coup d'etat followed, the treaty was torn up and a Belgrade crowd ransacked the German tourist office. An enraged Hitler, swearing to "cauterise the Serbian ulcer", razed Belgrade from the air on Palm Sunday, then conquered Yugoslavia and set up an Independent State of Croatia, including Bosnia-Hercegovina, under the Ustasha terrorist Ante Pavelic, whose avowed policy to the Serbs was "convert a third, expel a third and kill a third".

The religious fury that ensued, and is once more raging, can best be traced to the Bosnian city of Banja Luka. A wholesale massacre of the Serbs was already in full swing when, on 4 May 1941, the Ustasha seized the Orthodox bishop of Banja Luka, Platon Jovanovic, shaved his beard, gouged out his eyes, cut off his nose and ears, and then lit a fire on his chest before dispatching him. He was one of some 130 Orthodox priests murdered in the Pavelic state. The Roman Catholic bishop of Banja Luka was an enthusiastic believer in conversion at gunpoint, so by September 1941, an Ustasha newspaper could boast that 70,000 Serbs had joined the Catholic Church in the diocese.

On 12 November 1941, 60 prominent Muslims in Banja Luka wrote to Pavelic, condemning the treatment of the Serbs: "The killing of priests without trial, the shooting and murder in droves of completely innocent men, women and children, the deportation of families to an unknown destination, the forcible conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, all these things have horrified decent people in this region, and especially dismayed the Muslims." The letter accused the Ustasha of wearing the Turkish fez to stir up Serb hostility against the Muslims. In eastern Bosnia, Chetnik Serbs massacred thousands of Muslims, but in the Banja Luka region, both Serbs and Muslims tended to join the Communist partisans.

When the Communists came to power in 1945, they persecuted both Christian churches, and in 1953 mobs attacked and drove out the Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops of Banja Luka, who had been working together for reconciliation. In the more liberal Sixties, the next two bishops of Banja Luka resumed their ecumenical work.

In his Christmas message in 1963, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka, Alfred Pichler, admitted that countless Serbs had been killed in the war "simply because they were Orthodox", and begged "our Orthodox brethren to forgive us". However, Stella Alexander, in her book Church and State in Yugoslavia since 1945, says that Pichler's message "provoked deep anger among Catholic Croats, and in his own diocese some priests refused to read it from the pulpit".

When war broke out in 1992, the Serbs in the Banja Luka region turned their anger not on the Catholics, who had persecuted them 50 years earlier, but on the Muslims, who had taken their side. They destroyed almost all Banja Luka's 14 mosques, and starved, abused and then expelled the Muslims.

This time it was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka, Franjo Komarica, who spoke up for the Muslims and shamed the Serb authorities into relaxing their persecution. In May this year, after Croatia's army invaded and captured the Serbian enclave of Western Slavonia, the Serbs who fled across the Sava to Bosnia took their revenge by attacking Catholic clergy, churches and homes in Banja Luka. Bishop Komarica went on hunger strike in protest.

He has condemned the persecution of Muslims by both the Serbs and his fellow Catholics, especially the cruel destruction of Mostar. He also denounces the demands by the new Ustasha, for all or part of Bosnia-Hercegovina to become part of a Greater Croatia. He remains true to the ideal of a Bosnia where all three religions co-exist - "like a garden full of different flowers", as he is fond of saying.