Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Religion, Conflict and Prospects for Reconciliation in Bosnia, Croatia and Yugoslavia

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Religion, Conflict and Prospects for Reconciliation in Bosnia, Croatia and Yugoslavia

Article excerpt


A history textbook used by high school seniors throughout Serbia blames the outbreak of the current conflict in the former Yugoslavia on the Vatican, which "launched a battle against Orthodoxy and Serbs through the catholic Church and its allies." The Serbs fought back, it goes on, "to prevent a repeat of the genocide they suffered in World War II."(1)

Josip Beljan, writing in the catholic journal, Veritas, declared:

The cross of Christ stands next to the Croatian flag, the Croatian bishop next to the Croatian minister of state....This was truly again a real war for the "honoured cross and golden liberty," for the return of Christ and liberty to Croatia. The church is glad for the return of its people from the twofold slavery -- Serbian and communist.(2)

In November 1992, the leaders of the Islamic, Roman Catholic and Serbian Orthodox communities in Bosnia stated "emphatically" that "[t]his is not a religious war, and that the characterization of this tragic conflict as a religious war and the misuse of all religious symbols used with the aim to further hatred, must be proscribed and is condemned."(3)

These three quotes reflect three differing perspectives on the role of religion in the brutal war in the former Yugoslavia. The "religious war" account, exemplified by the Serbian textbook, contends that specifically religious divisions give the conflict in the former Yugoslavia a dimension not unlike the religious wars Europe has known all too well over the centuries. The Veritas article provides evidence to support the "ethnoreligious war" account of the conflict. According to this view, the conflict is about nationalism, not religion per se, but religion has contributed to the rise of nationalist conflicts. The statement of the religious leaders reflects the "manipulation of religion" account of the war. This explanation acknowledges that religious fears and symbols have been manipulated and abused by cynical ultranationalists for their own ends, but downplays the role of religious differences or religious nationalism in fomenting conflict.

Clearly, there is a religious dimension to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. National and ethnic divisions correspond closely to differences in religious identity. Serbians have traditionally been Orthodox; Croatians are predominantly Catholic; and, in Bosnia, Muslim is both a religious and national identity. The hundreds of churches and mosques that have been intentionally destroyed, the ubiquitous appeals to religion in official propaganda, and the use of religious symbols in torture are just some of the ways the conflict has been defined according to a complex relationship between national and religious identity.

Nevertheless, the religious leaders are essentially correct in downplaying the religious dimension of this war. "It cannot be overemphasized," concludes Reverend Peter Kuzmic, president of the Protestant-Evangelical Council of Croatia and Bosnia, "that the genesis of the war was ideological and territorial, not ethnic and religious."(4) The conflict erupted out of the failure of the Yugoslav idea, a failure in which cultural, political, economic and other types of factors were far more prominent than religious ones. Yugoslavia dissolved in 1991 into a war over competing and mostly incompatible claims of self-determination. None of the six nationalities of the federation was satisfied with the seventy years of the Yugoslav experiment.(5) The Serbs felt that a more united Yugoslavia would end years of discriminatory treatment and give them the power and economic well-being commensurate with their numbers; fearing Serb domination, most of the other nationalities wanted a more decentralized Yugoslavia. After Tito's death, his fragile efforts to balance these competing views of Yugoslavia gave way to a process of economic and political decentralization and disintegration. Serious economic decline coincided with a growing political incompatibility after 1989 between the nascent democratic and nationalist movements in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Macedonia and hard-line communist-turned-nationalist regimes in Serbia and Montenegro. …

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