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The Jerusalem of Europe: Spirituality and Religion

Cathedral of the Sacred Heart (Catholic), Sarajevo

The city of Sarajevo sits in an area that has been inhabited since the Neolithic age, with a medieval settlement in the region large enough that a cathedral was established by the early 13th century. Sarajevo as it is known today is traditionally said to be established in 1461 under Ottoman rule. It is known as the Jerusalem of Europe in part for its location between east and west, and for its concentration of major religious houses of worship in such close proximity. Within less than a square kilometer one can find the Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals, the Emperor’s Mosque, and the Sephardic Synagogue, as well as other mosques and churches. We toured several during our first evening.

Buna River source, from Blagaj Tekije

On the second day of the conference, we took a bus tour through Herzegovina, visiting pilgrimage sites of each of the major religious groups. Our first stop was a Tekije (A Dervish house, like a monastery) in Blagaj, overhanging the source of the Buna River. The Tekije (or Tekke) was built in the 16th century, and also houses something rather unusual for Muslim holy places, which is a Türbe, a tomb or shrine, of two of the sheikhs who had lived here.  

Žitomislić Monastery

We then moved to the Žitomislić  monastery with its Church of the Annunciation, a community of Serbian Orthodox monks, which had been originally established in the late 16th century. It is a site of martyrdom, as well: the monks here were all killed during World War II by Axis-allied Ustaše (Croatian Revolutionary Movement) and the buildings razed. It was rebuilt after the war only to be destroyed again in 1992 during the Bosnian wars and the collapse of Yugoslavia. The most recent reconstruction began in 2002.

Međugorje church and outdoor pilgrim chapel

Međugorje was our next site. It had been pouring rain all day, and it was already dark by the time we arrived. Until the day before, I had not realized we would be coming, so I had not brushed up on the apparitions there, yet as the only Catholic theologian in the group, I was the default expert. Several people had not heard of the site, and were not familiar with the Catholic tradition of Marian apparitions, though some did know of either Lourdes or Fatima. There were few pilgrims in the church, and between the dark and the downpour we could not see or get up the hill. Since 1981, there have been claims of apparitions here, and the Holy See has not yet made a final decision regarding the site (and will not until the apparent apparitions abate), though the initial investigation by the local ordinary, concluded in 1986, was critical. The current status is that it remains open, and that no one is forbidden from going unless and until the message is determined to be false. At its best, the Church would never require anyone to believe in the messages, as general revelation ceased with the apostles, but would allow veneration.

Stari Most (Old Bridge), Mostar

Finally, we ventured to Mostar, a 15th century city known for its Stari Most (“Old Bridge”), which stood from 1566-1993 when it was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces during the war. A new Old Bridge has been reconstructed using the same technology and local materials as the original. It was inaugurated in 2004. Since 2005 it has been on the World Heritage List. It was another great city that was unfortunate to visit in darkness and a downpour that would contribute to the flooding of the region in the days to follow. We had a pleasant local dinner and sampled Bosnian wine before heading back to Sarajevo.

Emperor's Mosque, Sarajevo


Conflict and Dialogue: Contemporary Bosnia i Herzegovina

Sarajevo at sunset

The siege of Sarajevo was contemporary with my four years in high school, 1992-96. Now, nearly fifteen years later, the city is in good shape and relations seem markedly better, but just as there are some signs of the previous destruction – a few buildings with bullet holes or shrapnel damage, some still gutted, an abandoned and burned out pickup truck, and a few Sarajevo Roses still to be seen – so too is there still some evidence of the ethnic and national tensions.

The airport is small, with a relatively short runway surrounded by residential neighborhoods, in a valley that usually includes a turbulent and foggy approach. As if this is not enough, pilots must approach in radio silence, apparently because there are still pockets of resistance whom authorities fear would take advantage of an incoming jet, intercept voice communications and give incorrect information in order to cause a crash. Outside the capital city, there are still places where you can see nationalist expression, even while within Bosnia, for example, you can see neighborhoods divided by flying Croatian and Serbian flags respectively.

The government is complicated. There are three (ethnic) constituent peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH): the Bosniaks (mostly Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox) and Croats (Catholic). In the wake of the Dayton Accords which established the current peace (but did not set up a constitution or long term plan), the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina has a rotating national presidency of three people, one from each of the constituent peoples. The three presidents serve a four year term (elected) and rotate chairmanship of the presidency every eight months. The locals joked with us that if you walk down the street, nobody knows who the current president is, but they surely all know the UN High Representative (currently Austrian Valentin Inzko) who is responsible for overseeing the ongoing implementation of the Dayton Accords.

Further, the country is divided into three political entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska, and the small Federal District of Brčko which is formally part of both the other entities but governed by neither. Further, the Federation is subdivided into ten cantons; each has its own government. Finally, the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, respectively, are distinct but not defined – Herzegovina covering the southern part of the country, the eastern half in Republika Srpska and the western half in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sarajevo Martyrs Cemetary, courtesy Khaoula Amouri

At one point during the week, we had an evening presentation on the country and its culture, given by our local hosts and members of the planning committee, three Bosnians in their twenties. They had deliberately decided not to present on the war. As part of the younger generation, only children at the time, there is an understandable interest in moving on and focusing on the good that has come since, and also to show that the war is not the only thing to know about the country. (Our friend from Northern Ireland voiced his understanding for this approach from his own experience of having been constantly asked about the troubles there). In part, the decision had been made because there had already been some tense side discussion about one of the more horrific aspects of the conflict, which was the Srebrenica massacre, which was ruled as genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia in 2004 and confirmed as such by the International Court of Justice in 2007. Other participants had been waiting for a discussion precisely on the topic, though, and the anxiety boiled over during discussion, when it seemed as though it might not be addressed at all during the week.


It got very emotional. Had the planning committee overlooked including a discussion about the war, which would have been irresponsible, or were they trying to move on too quickly, which could appear as a false irenicism? Was Srebrenica genocide as the ICJ declared, or is that a matter of opinion – with each of the three factions in BiH having its own take in addition to the “outsider” international judgment? Is even asking that question genocide denial? One of our participants pointedly asked whether killing 6 million Chinese would count as genocide, suggesting that several historians disagree with the ICJ determination (based on the idea that genocide cannot be confined to a locality, but must target an entire ethnic group or nation), while another held that even questioning the term genocide in this case was tantamount to denying the act itself. Someone else asked whether it mattered at all what we called it, massacre or genocide, war crime or atrocity, so many deliberate killings is wrong no matter the motivation. Others were voicing shock that this could happen on European soil so recently as to be in our lifetime, after the Shoah and “never again”, even while UN peacekeepers stood by and did nothing (or could do nothing). For that matter how could a siege have lasted for so long in the modern era without direct international intervention?

I would not have wanted to be in the place of our presenters, a couple of young Bosnians in unprepared for the barrage of questions and not expert in the topic other than having lived here – but they handled it remarkably well. Some of the planning committee worried that the entire rest of the conference would be derailed by the topic, rather than focusing on the purpose that brought us together. I have rarely felt so inadequate for a discussion: I had not studied the war in depth, and am not an expert in genocide (its definition or its denial). I spent the rest of the night wandering from group to group, doing what I could just to listen to everyone, or to as many as I could. I was humbled, inspired, and moved in turn – at times I have felt that my work in dialogue can get too academic and we need to bridge the gap with the pastoral. Here, that was no problem, and my only wish was that I could have offered more.

This is what interreligious dialogue is about. The group gelled well in the first part of the week. People were open and available for conversation and challenge. It was not planned this way, but the organizers and the next morning’s presenter responded well, addressing the concerns but bringing it into the context of our work, doing so first in thespirit of prayer and then in the greater question of fundamentalism and dialogue. I know not everyone was perfectly happy, some still felt as if their voice was not heard enough, or not enough attention was given to the subject of the war and the ongoing healing, but the larger sense seemed to be that at a moment which could have tipped the rest of the week into uncomfortable irrelevance, instead we were able to bring it back together and deal with difficult questions. In the end, we were better for it.

Home group at the end of the week, courtesy Amjad Agil

Sarajevo 2010: Fundamentalist or Responsible Citizen?

Karin Kops (Estonia) addressing the conference

For the last week, I have been blessed with the opportunity to be in Sarajevo with a great group of young people from all over Europe. We gathered for a conference entitled Fundamentalist or Responsible Citizen? The Contribution of Religious Communities to the Formation of European Citizens. The sponsoring agencies included the Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe (EYCE, affiliated with the WCC), the Forum of European Muslim Youth and Student Organizations (FEMYSO), and the Council of Europe. This summit marked the culmination of a three-year Campaign to Overcome Fundamentalism spearheaded by EYCE. 

I should note that “youth” means something different here than in the U.S., as anyone involved in World Youth Day would be aware. At home, especially when speaking of “youth ministry”, we are talking of teens in middle school and high school, age 12-18 or so. Over here, “youth” means university age, in its broadest implications, so the participants ranged from 20 to 35. After almost a decade of involvement in National Workshops on Christian Unity and some NCC events in the States, it was striking to be one of the older people in the room rather than one of the youngest. 

About 45 people were gathered, roughly twenty each were Christian or Muslim, and only four or five were Jewish. I think only four of us were Catholic, with Orthodox, Protestant and even pre-protestant communities represented (i.e., Moravians, Czech Brethren, and Waldensians). Most European states were represented, with the Iberian countries being the only noticeable absence. I was the only non-European, but for my European credentials I was ‘representing’ the Vatican as a pontifical university student – that is, quite unofficially. 

The highlight of the week was the other participants. My roommate was a student from Lithuania. I spent time at a British pub called “Cheers” with a theologian-staffer to the Icelandic bishops’ national office, a protestant pastor’s kid from Northern Ireland living in the Republic, and a Romanian seminarian friend who lead the planning of the whole event (and just turned 22). One of my first conversations was with a Palestinian Briton about the situation in the Holy Land, and my experiences there with the Russell Berrie Fellowship. I shared shisha with a Turkish Muslim woman living in Cairo, and burek with two Albanians from Macedonia and a Latvian who has seen more of the world than I likely ever will! And the list goes on. 

Hasan Patel, photo courtesy of Khaoula Amouri

Despite having studied in Rome for the last year, this was the first time to really talk about Europe per se with Europeans – really to listen and observe as they discussed it themselves – especially on such a relevant issue as the role of religion and secularity in nation, state, and European society. (Most of my classmates are African, Asian, and some from the Americas and what Europeans there are mostly from the east, and a minority.) 

While not an academic conference exactly, the presentations were on topic and promoted good discussion. We had a welcome from the Mufti of Sarajevo and President of the Interreligious Council (IRC), a panel with Muslim, Orthodox, and Catholic representatives of the Bosnian IRC, and presentations from Bashy Quarishy of Denmark, Hasan Patel and Imam Ajmal Masroor of the UK, and Dirk Thesenvitz of Germany. At the end of the week, a subcommittee of participants collated the week’s comments and discussion and drafted a Final Statement, which was signed by all the participants. As part of that committee, I wish we had had more time, as there were a few areas that we felt could have been better phrased, but considering the actual drafting was done in about three hours, by committee for approval by the whole, it seemed to come together rather well. 

Baltic and Balkan friends, photo courtesy Kristina Jureviciute

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