Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Proselytism in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia [*]

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Proselytism in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia [*]

Article excerpt


The successor states of the former Yugoslavia are Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. After 1992 only two of them remained in a federal union that still bears the name of Yugoslavia: Montenegro and Serbia. The other four are independent countries. In my essay above, "Religious Topography of Eastern Europe," the reader will find background information on the religious composition of these countries.

Having been in a single state structure for about seventy years (with some interruption during World War II), the religious communities of the present independent states indicate a degree of interconnectivity greater than that of other Eastern European countries. For many years the religious organizations existed as single denominations in the territory of the former federation. Currently, some of them have been voluntarily or forcibly separated and sometimes divided into smaller religious denominations incorporated in a single successor state for which communication with other branches of their religious unit may be obstructed or restricted. The wars of 1991-95 created a great deal of hatred and enmity that add a tragic dimension to the relationship between the peoples, societies, and even religious communities of the former Yugoslavia. [1]

When one thinks of proselytizing in Eastern Europe, one often focuses on the influx of "free church" Protestants or neo-Protestants from about the middle of the nineteenth century onward or the arrival of a myriad of evangelical or pentecostal Protestant groups and missions and of the New Religious Movements (N.R.M.'s) in the post-communist period. [2] My contention is that in the lands of the former Yugoslavia there are three far more significant and pervasive forms of proselytizing that have been going on significantly longer and with greater intensity than the above-mentioned "sectarian" forms of proselytizing, so as to relegate the latter to a minor fourth type of proselytizing activity.

The three major forms of proselytism are as follows: (1) to attempt to convert or absorb members of a different ethnoreligious unit [3] into one's own; (2) to continue in a modified form during the post-communist period the process that had been vigorously pursued by the Communist Party of converting people from religion to atheism; and (3) to reconvert or bring back into the fold of a church all members of an ethnoreligious unit who allegedly "naturally" belong to that church, even though they had drifted away from religion. These major types of proselytism can be explicated further.

(1) The three major religious communities--Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Islam--are locked in conflict with each other such that conversion of other ethnoreligious groups into one's own community is seen not only as desirable but also as the fulfillment of an age-old imperative of reintegrating into the community those who had allegedly strayed in the past, thereby presumably correcting a historical injustice. Specifically, I mean the aspiration of many Serbs and Croats to return the Bosnian Muslims to the fold of Orthodoxy or Catholicism, respectively, just as Muslims have occasionally regretted that the conversion to Islam of the Christian population in the Balkans was not as thorough as in some other previously-Christian-and-presently-Muslim areas of the world, such as the Near East or North Africa. [4]

There has also been the aspiration of many Croats to convert the Serbian Orthodox to an Eastern Rite or even Roman Rite Catholic Church. Conversely, some Serb political and religious leaders aspired to turn Croat Roman Catholics into Eastern Orthodox. At the time of the establishment of Yugoslavia, a widespread theory existed that southern Slavs originally spoke a single aboriginal language prior to their settlement in the Balkans in the seventh century, but, due to Balkan geography and alien invasions, they first split into three (Slovene, Serb, and Croat) and later four (Bosnian) state structures. …

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