Post-war Interfaith Dialogue in Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Lesson (Un)learned*

By Ahmed Kulanić**

The brutality of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) has been referred to as an outcome of inescapable tensions in multicultural and religiously diversified societies. This has been a particular trend among authors focusing on the Balkans in general and more specifically on Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Many seem to argue that the differences between different religious and ethnic communities are too deep and wide to reconcile and too difficult to give way to cooperation and a shared future. While one can see hints of 'clash of civilisations' theory and its assumptions in such arguments, now that some twenty-three years have passed since the war, and we have seen myriad of interfaith and inter-cultural peace initiatives, we can look back to see whether in fact such views had merit, and explore what lessons we learned, or did not learn from inter-religious initiatives in the post-Dayton Bosnia experience. These lessons have a wider implication beyond BiH itself, and can provide helpful insights for societies recovering from ethno-religious violence.

The adoption of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (DPA) in Dayton (Ohio, USA) and its signing in Paris in 1995, brought not only peace to the Bosnians of all ethnic groups but also it enabled the establishment of a basis for the process of reconciliation BiH. The political system created in Dayton automatically demanded a greater role from religious leaders in order to implement all provisions of the DPA and to create a stable and secure environment in BiH, given religious identities and themes played a key part in group identities. An important national level expression of this was the Inter-religious Council (IRCBiH) established by the leaders of four traditional religious communities (Islamic Community, Roman-Catholic Church, Serbian-Orthodox Church and Jewish Community) in 1997 – merely a year-and-half after the war.  It had only one aim: fostering reconciliation among different ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its establishment was in line with the model of a top-down approach to the understandings of religious dialogue, aimed at religious leaders and representatives to initiate and develop activities on the ground that would contribute to the development of cooperation and reconciliation among communities and at the national levels.  

Since its establishment, IRCBiH participated, promoted and organised numerous activities and has been positioned in the region as a major civil society organisation promoting reconciliation through interfaith dialogue. In the last twenty-one years, the IRCBiH focused its work on five major levels: individuals, grassroots non-governmental organisations, international organisations, religious communities/churches and state institutions; and several key aspects or dimensions working with women, youth, young theologians and religious clergy. The IRCBiH also organised several scientific conferences emphasising the strength and role of interfaith dialogue in BiH and their importance at the global level, especially in a post 9/11 world. They promoted and published several books, including the important publication of Religious Customs of Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, Catholics and Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2005).

The example of inter-faith peace and reconciliation initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina highlighted that only a mixture of both top-down and bottom-up approaches can produce sustainable peace and lead toward the sincere reconciliation of a divided society. A top-down approach simply focusing on top level religious figures and institutions are not enough on their own, unless they are supported by bottom-up activities that integrate individual citizens living next door to each other. There are several key major achievements that interfaith dialogue in Bosnia and Herzegovina brought to the fore. It has demonstrated that dialogues within a multicultural society plagued by memories of war are still possible and, in fact, rather than impossible, they are inevitable. It highlighted that the inclusion of different segments of the society beyond high level political and religious figures, especially inclusions of women and youth, provide the basis for sustainability of mutual understanding, dialogue and cooperation. It exemplified how institutions that are often thought to be distinct and apart from each other actually need to be engaged and intentionally brought together through networking of grassroots organisations, religious institutions and international organisations. Successful examples of this in BiH included seminars, humanitarian initiatives or educational activities aimed at bridging different ethnic or religious groups while also bringing together academics, practitioners and civil society organisations. For example, a joint postgraduate study program entitled “Inter-religious studies and peace-building” was established in 2017 by the Faculty of Islamic Studies, the Faculty of Catholic Theology from the University of Sarajevo (Sarajevo) and the Faculty of Orthodox Theology – University of Eastern Sarajevo (Foča).

However, while it can be said that interfaith dialogue in BiH has been largely successful, there have been numerous challenges. The continual use and misuse of religious identities, mostly by politicians  for political purposes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, creates fragility within society and also undermines a genuine reconciliation process. Furthermore, while the Dayton Peace Agreement provided the basis for dialogue and reconciliation by ending the war, it also enforced the ethnic division and segregation of Bosnian society that ultimately led towards the formation of the ethnically cleansed territories as shown in the Bosnian 2013 census. Another challenge is that the proximity of the war-experience is still used by politicians in their electoral campaigns. Memories of the war is still fresh for many Bosnian citizens. Cases of genuine reconciliation at the grassroots levels are an exception rather than normal. There are still unresolved issues of illegal religious structures built during the war on private properties, such as the case of Fata Orlovic and the Serbian Orthodox Church in Bratunac.

The national reconciliation process is still very fragile in Bosnia and Herzegovina. To ensure its continual success and sustainability, interfaith dialogue must take greater place within the local communities and must be reach to day to day lives of individuals and not be trapped at institutional or academic levels. It has to be grounded in the local experience of people of the region rather than from “imported” solutions from other places.  Perhaps, the very personal concept of komšiluk (neighborhood) could provide a common ground to take interfaith dialogue further and deeper. Maybe this can move us further on from the concept of simply tolerating difference to actually sharing and cherishing our differences, thus creating a truly multicultural and plural society.


*Originally written for the Centre on Religion and Global Affairs

**Ahmed Kulanić is a senior teaching assistant at International University of Sarajevo, also a PhD Candidate in the field of Political Sciences. He participated in several domestic and international projects, has published several articles, encyclopedia entries and co-edited book entitled “Bosnia and Herzegovina: Law, Society and Politics”.