In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Catholic wounds need healing as radical Islam is on the rise

WAR BROKE OUT in the Balkan nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina on April 6, 1992, officially coming to an end Nov. 21, 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, a provisional peace treaty which made the country a semi protectorate of the United Nations. Bosnia-Herzegovina today is divided among three ethnic groups: Bosnians, Serbs and Croats. Although on paper equally considered, in reality frustration drives dangerous centrifugal forces: Muslim Bosnians are increasingly oriented towards Turkey and the Islamic world; the majority Orthodox Serbs are subject to influence from Russia, while the Catholic Croats, the smallest of the ethnic groups, lean towards Europe. A growing internal conflict risks the country’s future and complicates its anticipated accession to the EU.

Destroyed church in the Archdiocese of Vrhbosna (2001)

It is estimated that at least 100,000 people were killed during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, with more than two million displaced. The group that arguably suffered the most, and continues to suffer, is the minority Croat Catholic community. Still today many Croatian villages in the heart of Bosnia, destroyed during the fighting, stand empty. As Croat journalist Zvonimir Čilić reports, in the town of Vitez alone, Bosnian Muslims killed 653 people, leaving more than 460 widows and 600 children without one or both parents—all within 316 days.

The brutality of the violence enacted against the Catholic Croats stemmed in large part from a radical Islamist ideology imported with the arrival of foreign jihadist mercenaries. Hidden in the outskirts of urban centers such as Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica and Bihac, and in isolated villages such as Dubnica, Ošve, Gornja Maoča or Bočinje, these extremists were, and still are, financed by the Gulf States.

Even after the war was officially over, as the Croats started coming back to their homes, roaming bands of Islamist extremists continued to cut them down in terrorist attacks. As Zvonimir Čilić’s states, “Seven people out of our community were killed in their places of work in 1997, 1998 and afterwards, with the intent of stopping those who were driven out from returning.” To-date, none of those who committed terrorist attacks against the Travnik Catholic returnees have been brought to justice.

Father Željko Maric, headmaster of the Petar Barbaric School in Travnik, explains: “Travnik was a nice place to live before the war. It was a center of industry. Post-war, Travnik is a different story. People have no work. Many were killed, lost their homes or those dear to them. These wounds haven’t healed. Here there are divided families, emigration, destroyed work premises, and a lack of work opportunities. There is no perspective and the young people are leaving.”

According to Cardinal Vinko Puljic, archbishop of Sarajevo, up to 10,000 Catholics leave Bosnia-Herzegovina every year. The capital, with its once touted multi-ethnic character, was home to a pre-war population of 35,000 Croats; today only half that number remains. According to unofficial data from the Catholic Church, in the four dioceses of Bosnia-Herzegovina only 380,000 Catholics remain.

Youth Day in the Archdiocese of Sarajevo

On the other hand, the number of Muslims arriving from Turkey or the Gulf States has increased rapidly over the last ten years. Shopping malls built by Arab investors as well as so-called Arab Centers have sprung up throughout Bosnia and, if building continues apace, housing capacity will soon reach 100,000 people. According to 2018 data published by the local Islamic community, there are 1,912 mosques in the country of which 554 were built or reconstructed after the end of the war. The architecture reveals the foreign funding and expansionary ambitions of new and competing currents of Islam: conservative strains of Sunni Islam primarily from Saudi Arabia, and Shia Islam from Iran.

The King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo, built by the Saudis in 2000, is the second largest Muslim place of worship in the Balkans. In addition, according to a 2017 Council of Europe report, in the last 25 years, 245 different Arab humanitarian organizations have been operating in Bosnia, of which a number are financing the promotion of conservative Islam.

The radicalization of the local Muslim population has not only provoked wider concerns about the inter-religious harmony that has historically existed in Bosnia-Herzegovina; it has also heightened tensions within Islam. Bosnian Muslims do not welcome the recent introduction of these fundamentalist strains and they are concerned that these are deforming the understanding of traditional Bosnian Islam, long known for tolerance and acceptance of religious diversity.

Professor Dzemaludin Latic, who teaches at the University of Islamic Studies in Sarajevo, said: “Saudi politics in Bosnia is often erroneous. Iranian politics in Bosnia is often wrong. In the Saudi regard, they have no feeling for the multi-ethnicity that is here. And the Iranians have no sense of our destiny here, because they spread Shiism. This complicates our situation here even more.”

Dr. Stipe Odak, at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Louvain, Belgium, explains that both an organizational and ideological battle has started against the imported radical Salafist groups. Not in keeping with the Islamic canon, they have been given the option to either integrate into the Bosnian Islamic community’s standard organization or disband. These efforts are as yet unsuccessful. Dr. Odak believes that complicating the situation is an economic element: radicals financed by the Gulf States offer economic security to those that accept their ideology. The prospect of an Arab stronghold driven by foreign-sponsored fundamentalist ideologies is particularly worrying for Bosnia-Herzegovina’s ambitions to be accepted into NATO or the European Union.

It is clear that the key to a common future is reconciliation. Professor Latic believes that “we must speak of our own fears. Catholic Croats must understand the pain and fear of the Bosnians. We Bosnians, as a majority must feel for these Croats who are leaving, whose numbers have been halved. We have to realize what will face us if we are left without the support of the Croats for this state. What can we expect?”  That is an open question with few optimistic answers due to the discrimination of the Catholic minority and the inexorable growth of radical Islam, 25 years after the end of the Balkan war.

—Ivan Cigic & ACN staff