Fight Over Church

Author: Sadik Pazarac, Bijeljina
Uploaded: Monday, 25 October, 2004

A Bosniak returnee's campaign to have an illegally built church removed from her property poses test for RS authorities, as reported by IWPR

A battle over a church in Konjevic Polje, in Bratunac, in the east of the Republika Srpska, is threatening to ignite a new inter-ethnic and religious conflict in the region, pitting Serbs against Bosniak returnees. The Serb Orthodox church was built there illegally in 1996 on the private land of a Bosniak, Fata Orlovic, after she had been expelled from the village along with other local Bosniaks in the war. After Orlovic returned and got her property back, she asked the church and civil authorities to remove the building, which stands in front of the family home. The case went to court but the RS judiciary has avoided reaching any decision.

Since then, the issue has grown into a ‘cause celebre’, testing relations between Serbs and Bosniak returnees to the limits and drawing an ever-growing number of outside actors into the arena. While Bosniak parties, media and the Islamic Community have championed Orlovic's demands, citing her right to deal with her private property as she wishes, Serbian political parties, the Orthodox Church and the RS media have taken the opposite stand. They say the removal of the church would be an attack on freedom of religion.

Several small incidents culminated on 12 September with a public conflict between Orlovic and a group of Bosniaks on one side, and Serb Orthodox priests, civilians and the RS police on the other. The atmosphere was so heated that to many people it recalled the opening stages of the war in Bosnia in 1992. The Sarajevo weekly Dani on 17 September described Bratunac as a town on the edge of all-out warfare, with Bosniaks and Serbs ready to fight.

The dispute has been rumbled on for several months. After an earlier, less serious, incident in April, the RS authorities decided to close the church on a temporary basis until the court case ended. But the truce stemming from that decision lasted only 12 until September, when several Orthodox priests arrived in the village intending to conduct a service, accompanied by 10 Serbian youngsters, singing nationalist songs. Orlovic confronted them on their arrival in her yard. But after the youngsters pushed her out of the away, the police - instead of intervening to defend her - are alleged to have struck her. ‘When I fell down one of the officers hit me in the leg and other one in stomach,’ Orlovic told Dani. ‘I was winded and then they placed me in the police car.’ After she lost consciousness, she was taken to hospital in Bratunac and then Tuzla.

According to Dani, the next day the situation in Konjevic Polje calmed down, though Orlovic remains determined to get the church off her land. ‘I want my property like it was before,’ she told Dani ‘The church [authorities] should move it.’ According to the Bosniak media, the latest, most violent, confrontation in Konjevic Polje marks the tenth incident over Orlovic's property. It has led to growing demands for the RS authorities to implement the law, and for the Orthodox Church also to solve the log-jam by agreeing to relocate the building.

But seasoned political observers doubt that much can be expected from the politicians, as the Konjevic Polje saga has become part of the RS pre-election campaign, in which no Serb politician wishes to be seen as weak on ‘Serbian national interests’.

One political casualty of the dispute was the RS planning minister, Mensur Sehagic, a Bosniak, who signed the temporary ban on services in the church in the spring. Sehagic was sacked by the RS prime minister, Dragan Mikerevic, of the Party of Democratic Progress (PDP), backed by his party chief, Mladen Ivanic, Bosnia's foreign minister. ‘Ivanic and Mikerevic don't care whether the church stays in the yard of Fata Orlovic, or will be relocated,’ the newspaper Nezavisne Novine wrote recently. ‘But they do care very much to show voters they. represent and protect Serbian "national interests on every inch of Serbian land".’

In the ever-more heated atmosphere, the RS media have even claimed that the campaign to move the church at Konjevic Polje conceals a sinister intention by the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) to ignite tensions in the area. According to the Bosnian Serb newspaper Glas Srpski, moves to stop services in the church mark ‘a violation of freedom of religion’. The newspaper hinted darkly that the SDA stood behind what it called ‘an attack on Serbs and Orthodox believers in this part of Podrinje. They want to destroy everything positive done lately in this municipality.’

The main RS television station, Radio Television Republika Srpska (RTRS), has also weighed in, denouncing a ‘vandalistic attack by a group of Bosniaks on Orthodox priests and believers’. RTRS also carried an interview with the local bishop, Vasilije of Zvornik-Tuzla, describing moves to close the Konjevic Polje church as ‘genocidal’. The bishop claimed Orthodox people in the area had been ‘deprived of the right to their religion. Relocation or destroying the church is out of the question.’

While the media and clergy on both sides making ever more inflammatory statements, local people's feelings, whether Serb or Bosniak, appear increasingly marginalised. According to a Radio Free Europe report from the village, the local 700 Bosniak and four Serb families would probably be better off without their outside supporters. The radio cited one local Serb, Koviljka Petrovic, saying the church should not have been built there in the first place. ‘This is someone else's land,’ Petrovic told the radio. ‘That is Fata's land.’ Ranka Madzarevic-Petkovic, another Serb, who lost her husband in the 1992-5 war, agreed. ‘My Muslim neighbours are wonderful to me,’ she told the radio. ‘We must build a new life, and at least live next to each other.’ Ranka's neighbor, Fatima Mehmedagic, a Bosniak who lost three sons in the war, said: ‘Reconciliation would be much easier if everybody was like me and Ranka. We take care of each other. Serbian neighbours cultivate my piece of land - we get along.’

This article appeared in IWPR'S Balkan Crisis Report, No. 521, 14 October 2004, see www.iwpr.net

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