The Common Good
November-December 1995

Bosnia's Unhealed Wounds

by Jim Forest | November-December 1995

No matter what religious tradition one is part of, the grim cycle of violence and counterviolence that has gone on for more than three years in the former Yugoslavia indicts us all...

No matter what religious tradition one is part of, the grim cycle of violence and counterviolence that has gone on for more than three years in the former Yugoslavia indicts us all, but I sometimes think it is especially grim for those of us who are Orthodox.

On the one hand, unless we look at the Serbian side with the thickest rose-colored glasses, we are painfully aware that many (according to the Western press, most) war crimes have been committed by Serbs; and we know that among the Serb fighters there are those who regard themselves as "defenders of Orthodoxy."

On the other hand, we are constantly aware of a double-standard at work in the West. Whatever evils are committed by Serbian forces tend to become banner-headline news, while the war crimes committed by non-Orthodox tend to receive little press attention or may even be described in sympathetic terms. In the course of several years of journalistic efforts to simplify a complex event, the mass media have gradually created the stereotype of the Serb as savage.

Beneath this one-dimensional rendering of civil war in the Balkans, one discovers old but still unhealed wounds in the flesh of Europe. One factor is the ancient struggle between Islam and Christianity. Another is the millennium-old division that cut Christianity along East-West lines, Roman Catholic and Orthodox. Few of us could write a 500-word essay about the causes and consequences of that schism, but it has shaped and limited the churches in both East and West.

Christians on the Western side of the divide tend to feel little understanding or sympathy for the Orthodox Church (the word "orthodox" is in the West not quite a swear word), while Orthodox believers dwell on sins committed against them by Western Christians from the Crusades to the latest bombing raid. If the present war is not a religious war, it is certainly a war that draws on religious passions.

A more recent event affecting Serbian attitudes and activities was what Croats did to Serbs during World War II, when Croatia was a client state of Nazi Germany and Serbs were a target of genocide. Fifty years have passed and yet Croatians, including President Franjo Tudjman, far from acknowledging what happened, still seek to minimize the slaughter. Tudjman speaks of "exaggerated data."

IT WAS ONCE a question: "Who is to blame for the tragedy?" Before long came the answer: "The Serbs." The answer is true, but only partly. No one was more effective than Slobodan Milosevic in opening the Pandora's box of nationalism, but don't forget that there were other hands helping to lift the lid, most notably Croatia's Tudjman and Bosnia's Alija Izetbegovic.

The guilt for what has happened is not only shared by the political leaders of former Yugoslavia but leaders in other parts of Europe and the United States. Do you remember the Western rush to recognize Croatia as an independent state? The Vatican, which usually moves at glacier speed, was the first to send an ambassador to Zagreb. Can you imagine what this gesture meant to Serbs? While states were hurriedly accepting the carving up of Yugoslavia, little attention was paid to the fact that the borders of these states were the stuff that wars are made of.

In May the Serbian bishops issued a statement that condemned reprisal actions undertaken from the Serbian side: the "senseless" shelling of Zagreb and "irrational and vindictive acts of despondent and maddened refugees" against Catholics in Bosnian Krajina. The bishops concluded: "Evil is evil, no matter who committed it or upon whom it was committed."

Patriarch Pavle has often condemned the war, called for mutual forgiveness and repentance, and opposed the use of bloody methods to create a Greater Serbia, and he has met with Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish leaders in efforts to promote interreligious cooperation, taken part in the peace initiatives of the World Council of Churches, and repeatedly called for a negotiated peace.

"Evil and hatred create only new evil and hatred," Pavle said in May. "If this war proceeds, the only victors will be the devil and evil, not peoples and nations." While some Serbian bishops and pastors have turned a blind eye on war crimes committed by Serbs and have on occasion blessed both weapons and fighters, other Orthodox pastors are deeply engaged in service to the victims of war and in work for reconciliation.

Metropolitan John of Pergamon said in 1993 that "the essence of sin is fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God." The truth of his insight is written in blood in former Yugoslavia, where increasingly people are driven by demagogic politicians, propaganda, social pressure, and pure misery to define themselves by restrictive national labels. In such a fratricidal war, the real heroes have been not soldiers but rather those people who have refused to hate.

JIM FOREST, secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, has written biographies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and two books on religious life in Russia.

 

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