Tolerance battles suspicion among Bosnia's Serbs
by Daria Sito-Sucic
There are Sarajevo Serbs who say a mixture of church bells and calls to prayer at the mosque are music to their ears. For Serbs like these, the reopening of a museum of artifacts mingling the symbols of many faiths at Sarajevo's Orthodox Church complex, heralds a rebirth of ethnic harmony. But just as a decade ago, on the eve of the war that ripped Bosnia apart, their hopes for tolerance have been confronted with suspicion, distrust and outright death threats from hard-liners among their ethnic kin. Multi-ethnicity has been branded a charade by the Serbian Orthodox Church, reflecting deep skepticism among Serbs over whether they should live together with Bosnia's other peoples.
Most Bosnian Serbs now live in the nationalist-dominated Serb Republic, a region of Bosnia from which most Croats and Muslims were expelled during the 1992-95 war. Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital, lies on the boundary of the Republic and the Muslim-Croat federation. Sarajevo Serb visitors to the museum at the church said they were as proud as ever of the city's diverse heritage. ‘This means the continuation of a joint life, a general reconciliation without which there can be no progress for any people,’ said Dana, a middle-aged Sarajevo Serb, dressed in her best fur coat.
Known these days for the vicious 44-month siege it suffered at the hands of Bosnian Serb forces, Sarajevo was once renowned as a place where Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews lived together in unique harmony. Tourist guides described the city as a ‘Small Jerusalem’. The museum houses artifacts donated by Serbs to the church under centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, including icons, tapestries, books, manuscripts, and silver and gold objects made by Bosnian craftsmen, most of them Muslims. The church's old wooden altar door was stylized with oriental ornaments under Islamic influence, and Jewish stars of David have been carved in wood together with Christian crosses. ‘I think this is an important element in understanding the multi-cultural life that everyone talks about so much today and which had always existed here,’ said Belgrade conservationist Anika Skovran, whose team restored the museum. The church building itself, the foundations of which historians link to the early 5th or 6th century, is believed to be the only preserved old town church in the Balkans.
Ghosts of the Past
Mirko Pejanovic, head of the Serb Civic Council gathering Bosnian-oriented Serbs, said that the reopening of the museum had been a great joy for Sarajevo Serbs and the Orthodox church. ‘With this, the city of Sarajevo has completed its cultural inheritance, cultural tradition and its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural being,’ said Pejanovic, formerly a Serb member of Bosnia's wartime multi-ethnic presidency. But moderates like Pejanovic are still confronted by Serbs who cannot accept that some of their kin are ready to live alongside other peoples. In early January, a self-styled ‘Serb terrorist organization’ sent death threats to Pejanovic and nine other Sarajevo Serbs who advocate co-existence. Those targeted by the threats, including the only Orthodox priest who stayed in Sarajevo during the war, were denounced as ‘Muslim lackeys’ and ‘Serb traitors’.
In another sign of the depth of the rift, the Orthodox church has threatened to withdraw altogether from the Muslim-Croat federation that makes up half of postwar Bosnia. ‘The Serb Orthodox Church does not want to participate in the creation of a fake multi-ethnic image of Bosnia and Herzegovina,’ its figurehead Metropolitan Nikolaj said in a statement. He refused to send a televised Christmas message to Orthodox believers in the federation, and forbade a televised broadcast of the Christmas prayer.
But among the Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish symbols at the medieval church, optimism reigned. Dana spent the whole 1992-95 war in the besieged city alongside Muslims and Croats, under fire from her ethnic kin. ‘Hatred cannot win victory for any nation,’ she said.
This report was published by Reuters, 29 January 2002