“Building bridges”: Interfaith dialogue in post-conflict Bosnia

Peter Admirand

[This piece is abridged from a journal article originally published by the author in Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, entitled “Building Bridges among Bridge-Destroyers: Post-Conflict Interfaith Dialogue after the Bosnian War”]

Of the Balkans and bridges, Ivo Andrić’s paean to the stone bridge of Višegrad in his novel, The Bridge over the River Drina, is often seen as a symbol for interfaith and intercultural connection. Despite the tumult of history, of violence and modernization, the bridge was said to remain, “when all was over, unchanged and unchangeable.”1Ivo Andrić, The Bridge over the River Drina. Translated by Lovett F. Edwards (London: The Harvill Press, 2007), 93 Yet, like so much in the Balkan wars, nothing was safe from senseless violence and destruction. As Ed Vulliamy notes: “Had the author lived into the 1990s, he would have been forced to retract his noble words. For the bridge on the Drina was bloodily defiled.”2Ed Vulliamy, The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia: The Reckoning (London: Bodley Head, 2012), 95. It became sullied as a site of mass death and torture of Bosnians of all ages, executed on the bridge and dumped in the river. Altogether, 3,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were murdered in Višegrad and its immediate surroundings. Such is also just one example in a conflict haunted by stories and accounts ever more ghastly and horrific, where neighbors raped and massacred neighbors.

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge. Image: V. Mijailović (Wikimedia Commons)

Can interfaith dialogue really heal such wounds? Healing is a very loaded word, especially after irreparable loss, but my overriding contention remains that interfaith and intercultural dialogue (especially among the youth) remains a flawed, but still indispensable feature for any healing and viable future for post-conflict societies like BiH.3For an important and accessible work on postwar life in Bosnia, especially for “ordinary Bosnians,” see Peter Lippman, Surviving the Peace: The Struggle for Postwar Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2019).

 Interfaith Dialogue amidst Broken Bridges

While speaking in Sarajevo in 2015, Pope Francis proclaimed that in “interreligious dialogue one shares the experiences of daily life in all its concreteness, with its joys and sufferings, its struggles and hopes.” He rightly spoke of the practical, ethical, humanitarian, intellectual, and spiritual nature of dialogue, which “must extend to all believers, engaging the different sectors of civil society. 

In post-conflict contexts, however, basic needs and requirements of interfaith dialogue are already under strain. How can one dialogue with someone linked to a group that has recently slandered, persecuted, tortured, or killed those among your affiliated group, perhaps solely, or predominantly, because of their religious identity?

Elsewhere I have written about the limits of interfaith dialogue in the present context of ongoing mass atrocity and violence.4“Dialogue in the Face of a Gun? Interfaith Dialogue and Limiting Mass Atrocities.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 99.3 (2016): 267–290. Yet, in a post-conflict or transitional justice context—even decades after, as in Bosnia—with the passing of years and a general dwindling of violence and counterviolence, the space for interfaith dialogue can become more hopeful and possible. Or, more likely, economic and political realities point to no other way than dialogue. Such dialogue may not be desired for desire’s sake, but rather for practical, sometimes even spiritual needs.

A picture of the city taken from a hilltop. In the foreground, a crematorium with many white gravestones.
Sarajevo. Image: P. Admirand

To be clear, only extraordinary people can actually interact and dialogue, let alone partner, with individuals or groups who had once engaged in horrific and destructive action against their lives, property, dignity, and rights. Such hopes for dialogue thus need to be tempered, and often downplayed just to the still daunting notion of simple co-existence. Given often competing memories of history, judging is inevitable—but the hope is that such judging can be momentarily suspended, or at the least, not deemed definitive; that some space is left for trying to understand motivations and intentions; and if forgiveness is sought, to at least recognize this aim. Note that wherever any culpability is denied, such dialogue (let alone some elixir of forgiveness or reconciliation) is extremely tenuous. Survivor of Omarska, Serif Velić, told journalist Ed Vulliamy how he still suffers from Serbian threats of violence from his neighbors who are, “articulate in their lack of remorse: ‘I still feel the hostility every day…But they are never going to change or accept what they have done – it is too late now.”5Vulliamy, The War is Dead, 251

Still, sometimes in the silence of that listening, there can be connections, links, bridges of shared pain, shared hope, and shared narratives of what could have been and what may be. There are no guarantees, though.

Interfaith Initiatives after Dayton

As R. Scott Appleby and others have noted, any reconciliation is an ongoing process; never a once-off achievement that somehow eternally banishes all feelings of anger, hatred, or revenge against once opposed groups. Any mercy, forgiveness, or reconciliation, most importantly, is not opposed or separated from justice but is part and parcel of a restorative justice, seeking a “just peace.”

In terms of dialogue, both top-down and grassroots approaches have been applied, and both ways are needed. Let me highlight some examples in Bosnia, and in Sarajevo more specifically. On June 9, 1997, four religious leaders in Bosnia signed the “Statement of Shared Moral Commitment,” – the first document of its kind in the Balkans. It also established the Interreligious Council of BiH. The Council primarily focuses on dialogue and partnership between and through the religious leaders of Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews. In December of 2018, for example, the Council published a guide for clergy to help them in their work with victims of sexual violence. In February of 2020, the Council organized “a joint prayer for the four major faiths to commemorate all the victims of the past war in BiH.” The Centre for Interreligious Dialogue in BiH, moreover, is noteworthy for its focus on sustaining tolerance and co-existence, especially through lower-level clergy members.

As dialogue encompasses all walks of life, a number of programs in BiH show great promise that seek to bring different groups together through music (Pontanima Choir); sports, especially soccer and basketball; and even beauty contests highlighting unity. As Davide Sterchele has argued, soccer may form an easier and more tangible unifier of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians than religion partly because the ‘ritual’ of soccer is the same everywhere and so various groups do not have to adjust or change their beliefs or actions or seek to stress their uniqueness or superiority. There is less space for ritual unity among those of different faiths.

Youth for Peace website.

Educating youth in multi-ethnic and multi-religious contexts is also essential.6Gorazd Andrejč, “Small Steps: Youth Interfaith Work in Post-Conflict Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Perspectives (Woolf Institute (Winter 2014/15): 10–13. To take one example, Youth for Peace, of Bosnia and Herzegovina, linked with a global movement represented in over a hundred countries, as part of the United Religious Initiative. The aim of the group in Bosnia and Herzegovina is to “promote dialogue, interfaith cooperation, to end all kinds of violence and to create cultures of peace, justice and healing for youth.” They offer workshops overcoming prejudice, accepting diversity, and encouraging interfaith learning; summer camps for peace; employment and skills aid and development; and social and intercultural activities. Begun in 2014, they celebrated their fifth anniversary in May of 2019, posting photos of the celebration online with the comment: “You cannot change the things that went into the minus much before you, but you have to work hard again, to repair what you did not spoil.”

 Conclusion: Repairing the Foundations, Restoring the Bridges–Tentative Steps

The stories and narratives of violence and torture from the Bosnian War remain nauseating and morally and spiritually destructive. The mixed actions and reactions of the international community also leave little room for sustained hope. At the same time, a number of initiatives fostering co-existence and tolerance, if not with an eye on long-term reconciliation or even forgiveness, have provided some hope for BiH’s present and future. Where would the country be without such groups and individuals?

While staying in Sarajevo in the summer of 2018, my Sarajevo host (I’ll withhold his name for privacy) told me of his family members murdered in the Serbian bombing of the Sarajevo fruit market during the infamous siege. He also told me how his wife’s family and village in Foča were destroyed by Serbian paramilitaries, turning it into a site of mass rape, including some girls as young as twelve, for the “crime” of being Bosnian Muslims.7Vulliamy, The War is Dead, 202. Yet, despite the ongoing reality of corruption and injustice all around him,8Vulliamy, The War is Dead, 134 he and his wife still try to teach their kids about the basic goodness of all human beings regardless of race or religion.

As we spoke, memories of a recent visit to Sarajevo’s War Childhood Museum (where my host told me he knew many of the people who gave testimony or items to the exhibits) and the grisly, but highly informative Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide 1992-1995 were also fresh in my mind.

Two stuffed toys on display inside a glass enclosure. One red, the other blue.
Display from Sarajevo’s War Childhood Museum. Image: P. Admirand

One of his co-workers, my Sarajevo host casually admitted, was one of the Serbian snipers shooting down at civilians like him during the Siege of Sarajevo. When I asked him how he can even be in the same room with this killer, he smiled and shrugged, as if to say: what other choice do I have? “He can be a cool guy,” he then said, laughing and trying to be positive, as I tried to make sense of what is ultimately senseless. “But if he brings up the war, I leave the room. It makes me so mad. But do you know who I feel sorry for the most? His children because they still hear the bad things he has to say.” It is such honesty, empathy, and optimism that are so crucial to any kind of hope of “living-with, of co-existing” after such unaccountable horrors.

The small gains and successes often can seem ephemeral, however, for bridge-destroyers remain, whether in ongoing nationalist ideologies and demagogues or as an extant or growing resurgence in religious intolerance and racism. Again, it is so easy to destroy, to attack, to dismantle, to whitewash. Add to this ongoing economic and political inequality and marginalization and all-around corruption, and even the most optimistic of us must stave off gloom and despair. Nevertheless, as exemplified by interfaith groups and programs in BiH, we do see courageous and transformative ways forward, especially for the youth who were born after the war or adults now who were then children. For any future peace, interfaith and intercultural dialogue in such trying contexts can help to form or restore broken intercultural and interfaith bridges. To be clear: interfaith dialogue is not enough, and never will be enough, but that doesn’t take away from its power and urgency. 


Peter AdmirandPeter Admirand is the Director of DCU’s Centre for Interreligious Dialogue and a Theologian in the School of Theology, Philosphy, and Music. His forthcoming book, with Andew Fiala, Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue, will be out later this year.

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