Even though the civil war in former Yugoslavia ended in the 1990s, Bosnia Herzegovina is still ethnically and religiously divided among Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. Ethnic and religious identities in Bosnia Herzegovina are inextricably linked, so interethnic intolerance is usually bound up in interreligious tensions. Attacks on religious and ethnic minorities and their holy places are still occurring across Bosnia Herzegovina, as all three groups are a minority in specific regions of the country. Our research found that places of worship are prime targets for attacks against any given community’s minority. Such attacks range from acts of vandalism to arson, burglaries, harassment, desecration of burial sites, obstruction with regard to the rebuilding of destroyed religious shrines, and in some cases even killings.
In November 2010, the Oslo Center for Peace and Human Rights and the Interreligious Council in Bosnia-Herzegovina (IRC) in Sarajevo launched the first field project based on the Universal Code in Bosnia Herzegovina. The overall goal of this project is to build trust and improve relations across religious and ethnic communities, focusing on the protection of religious artifacts and holy sites. Its key elements are the systematic reporting of attacks, which are recorded in a database and subject to mechanisms to verify the information; joint visits of religious leaders to holy sites; multi-religious public condemnations of any act of violence; and the active engagement of stakeholders such as the police, media, and local political leaders.
The increase in cooperation between religious leaders and their joint condemnations of attacks on holy sites are among the project’s biggest achievements. On many occasions, the leaders visited the sites of an incident, met with the local government officials or religious leaders, and issued joint statements to the media and the public. Not only have these condemnations inspired tolerance among local populations, they have also built trust between the representatives of various religious communities and led to increased awareness around the gravity of hate crimes.
An independent evaluation has shown that the project stimulated communication between religious and ethnic communities. Several indicators suggested improvements in the protection of holy sites as well. These include increased police patrolling of the religious sites of minorities and a more balanced reporting on hate crimes on behalf of the media.
An example of good practice took place in a small village outside Sarajevo, where two drunk youth had desecrated a church with graffiti and offensive slogans. Local religious representatives issued a joint condemnation and the municipal administration paid for cleaning the walls of the church. The two boys and one of their parents visited the place of the attack and publicly apologized. As a peace gesture, the priest invited them for Rakija, since it was due to this drink that they had ended up getting intoxicated in the first place and had damaged the church. The priest also invited them to come back and help paint the fences of the church. Thus, this incident was dealt with in a conciliatory manner by all - the priest and the religious community, the police, the local administration, and the culprits themselves.
Launched in 2010
Focuses on joint statements by religious leaders and data compilation
Contributes to building trust and raising awareness
The results achieved in Bosnia Herzegovina:
Religious leaders and local administrations openly support the project;
Religious leaders participate in joint condemnations of attacks on sacred places;
Police patrols around vulnerable sacred places have increased;
Media reporting is more balanced.
WATCH: The IRC facilitates a successful condemnation of an attack, which targeted a mosque in Bijeljina, Bosnia Herzegovina.