Date: Thu, 21 Sep 1995 05:43:13 -0400
Sender: Progressive News & Views List <>
From: PNEWS <>
Subject: Bosnia and religious conflict
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/* Written Sep 20, 1995 by abhimji in */

Originally from: Don R. Calkins <>
The following appeared on a list for Baha’i scholars.

Subject: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia
From: Steven Scholl,,Internet
To: Don R. Calkins

Some Religious Dimensions of Genocide

By Michael Sells, May 1995

Excerpt from Common Era: Best New Writings on Religion (White Cloud Press, 1995)

All major Bosnian populations (Serb, Muslim, and Croat) trace their descent from the same south Slavic tribes, and (despite protestations of nationalists) all speak the same language. The term “ethnic” in “ethnic cleansing” actually refers to religious affiliation. The testimony in the UN War Crimes Commission reports suggests that what is called “cleansing” is actually genocide; that is (according to Webster's Ninth) “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.” While it is true that there have been abuses on all sides (as in most conflicts), the vast majority of victims have been unarmed Bosnian Muslim civilians. An estimated 200,000 Bosnian Muslims have been killed (out of a pre-war Bosnian total population of some 4 million).

The “ethnic cleansing” consists of: 1) Attacks on lightly defended settlements by heavily armed forces; 2) Savage shelling of settlements that resist; 3) Daily mass-killings, torture, and deliberate starvation; 4) Systematic use of rape; 5) Deliberate annihilation of cultural heritage (mosques, libraries, schools, museums, cemeteries, manuscript collections); 6) An economy of pillage with regular “caravans” of Muslim loot taken across the Drina river into Serbia proper; 7) Final, ritualized dehumanization in which survivors are stripped of every personal possession.

The treatment of Bosnian Muslims as an ethnic group is usually traced to the 1971 Yugoslav constitutional establishment of Bosnian Muslims as a Yugoslav “nationality.” Both the notion of religion as “ethnicity” and the notion of “cleansing” have far deeper roots, however, in the religious ideology of slavic nationalists, Christoslavism, which maintains that Slavs are, by nature, Christian. Any deviation from Christianity, therefore, is race-betrayal. We cannot hope to understand this genocide in Europe on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust unless we understand this religious ideology.

The Kosovo Myth: Slavic Muslims Portrayed as Christ-Killers in The Mountain Wreath

In 1389, the Serb Prince Lazar was defeated and killed in a battle against Ottoman Turkish Sultan Murad on the plain of Kosovo. While historians dispute the significance of the battle, in Serbian mythology it entailed the loss of Serb independence, a loss that was represented in cosmic terms. Lazar is portrayed as a Christ figure. He has a Last Supper with his nobles, one of whom, Vuk Brankovic, is a traitor and gives the battle plans to the Turks. During the battle, the Christ-Prince Lazar is slain and with him dies the Serb nation, to rise again only with the resurrection of Lazar. Turks are thus equated with Christ-Killers and Vuk Brankovic, the “Turk within,” becomes a symbol (and ancestral curse) of all slavic Muslims.

Thus the same manipulation of the “Christ-Killer” charge used in persecutions of Jews from the time of the First Crusade in 1096 also formed a rationale for the persecution of slavic Muslims. The classic illustration of this rationale is The Mountain Wreath, written by Prince-Bishop Petar II, known by the pen-name of Njegos, which portrays the 18th century Montenegrin extermination of slavic Muslims (Istraga Poturica).

The drama opens with Bishop Danilo, the play's protagonist, brooding on the evil of Islam, the tragedy of Kosovo, and the treason of Vuk Brankovic. Danilo's warriors suggest celebrating the holy day (Pentecost) by “cleansing” (cistimo) the land of non-Christians (v. 95). The chorus chants: “the high mountains reek with the stench of non-Christians [v. 284].” One of Danilo's men proclaims that struggle won’t come to an end until “we or the Turks [slavic Muslims] are exterminated.” The reference to the slavic Muslims as “Turks” crystallizes the view that by converting to Islam the Muslims have changed their racial identity and have become the Turks who killed the Christ-Prince Lazar.

Recently, the killing in Bosnia has been misrepresented as a “blood-feud.” In The Mountain Wreath, however, the genocide is explicitly placed outside the category of the blood-feud. In tribal Montenegro and Serbia, a blood-feud, however ruthless and fatal, could be reconciled; it was not interminable. The godfather (Kuma) ceremony was used to reconcile clans who had fallen into blood-feud. In The Mountain Wreath, when the Muslims suggest a Kuma reconciliation, Danilo's men object that the Kuma ceremony requires baptism. The Muslims offer an ecumenical analogy, suggesting that the Muslim hair-cutting ceremony is a parallel in their tradition to baptism. Danilo's men respond with a stream of scatological insults of Islam, its prophet, and Muslims. With each set of insults, the chorus chants Tako, Vec Nikako (this way; there is no other) to indicate the “act” that must be taken. The play ends with the triumphant extermination of slavic Muslims as a formal initiation of Serb nationhood.

By moving the conflict from the realm of blood feud into a cosmic duality of good and evil, Njegos placed slavic Muslims in a permanent state of otherness. The sympathetic qualities of the Muslims are the last temptation of Danilo. However sympathetic in person, Muslims are Christ-killers, “blasphemers,” “spitters on the cross.” After slaughtering the Muslims—man, woman, and child—the Serb warriors take communion without the confession that was mandatory after blood-vengeance.

In 1989, about a million Serb pilgrims streamed into Kosovo for the Passion Play commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo. On this occasion, Serb President Slobodan Milosevic announced his change from communist apparachnik to champion of the Serbdom. And those who directed the Passion Play, who acted in it, and who sat in the first rows in 1989, were those carrying out the most unspeakable depravities against Bosnian civilians only three years later.

Just as Good Friday remembrances of the passion of Christ were used by anti-Semites to instigate attacks on Jews, so the Kosovo Passion Play (which puts the slavic Muslims in the position of “Christ-killers”) became the occasion for persecution. The Mountain Wreath is memorized and quoted by radical Serb nationalists today. In Bosnia, nationalist Serb “ethnic cleansers” wear patches depicting the battle of Kosovo. Milovan Djilas, one of The Mountain Wreath's admirers, argued that the historical extermination of Montenegrin Muslims was a “process” rather than a single “event,” and that Bishop Petar shaped it into a single act for literary and ideological purposes. While there is doubt whether the “extermination of the Slavic Muslims” (Istraga Poturica) occurred as a single event in the late 18th century, the eight U.S. War Crimes Reports to the UN War Crimes Commission and the two Helsinki Watch Reports (see. n. 2) suggest that it occurred in 1992–93.

Christoslavism in the Work of Ivo Andric

“Race-betrayal” is a major theme of The Mountain Wreath and the strand of Serbian literature it represents. By converting to Islam, Njegos insisted, slavic Muslims became “Turks.” The novelist Ivo Andric presents race-conversion in clear ideological terms. He begins by grounding it the work of Bishop Petar:

Njegos, who can always be counted on for the truest expression of the people's mode of thinking and apprehending, portrays in his terse and plastic manner the process of conversion thus: “The lions [i.e. those who remained Christian according to Andric's footnote] turned into tillers of the soil, / the cowardly and covetous turned into Turks.”

If this is the message of “the people,” Bosnian Muslims are by definition not part of the people. Andric gives a historical rationale for such exclusion. For Andric, the ancient Bosnian Church, persecuted as heretic by both Catholic and Orthodox forces, was a sign of a “young slavic race” still torn between “Heathen concepts with dualistic coloring and unclear Christian dogmas.” Most Bosnians believe that the members of the Bosnian Church, called Bogomils or Patarins, were the ancestors of the Bosnian Muslims. Andric portrays Bosnian Muslims not only as cowardly and covetous and the “heathen element of a young race,” but finally as the corrupted “Orient” that cut off the slavic race from the “civilizing currents” of the West.

Andric's most famous novel centers on the bridge on the Drina River commissioned by Mehmet Pasha Sukolovic (a Serb who had been taken to Istanbul and become a Pasha). To appease fairies (vila) holding up the bridge's construction, the builders must wall up two Christian infants within it. Two holes that appear in the bridge are interpreted as the place where the infants mothers would come to suckle their infants. The story crystallizes the view that an essentially Christic race of Slavs is walled up within the encrustation of an alien religion. It also represents an obsession with the Ottoman practice of selecting Serb boys (such as Sukolovic) to be sent to Istanbul and brought up Muslim; such people, however successful, remain perpetual exiles to themselves, cut off from the Christian essence of their slavic souls. Andric is a hero to both Serb and Croat nationalists who have been “cleansing” Muslims from Bosnia.

This brief reading of Njegos and Andric cannot do justice to the range of their work nor is it meant to explain the genocide in Bosnia. It is meant only to illustrate that religion (despite frequent denials) is indeed a powerful and operative element in the tragedy.

Responses to Religious Cleansing in Bosnia

Last winter, Russian neo-Nazi Vladimir Zhirinovsky visited the highest ranking surviving SS officer in Germany, and then went to Serb occupied Bosnia where he was given an adoring welcome by Bosnian Serb ethnonationalists. While it would be wrong to equate genocide in Bosnia with the Holocaust, it is equally wrong to ignore the moral implications of genocide in Europe, against a non-Christian population. Some governmental and church leaders in the region and in the international community have failed to respond to the Bosnians' calls for assistance. More disturbing has been the active support by Serbian religious leaders of those Serbian military and governmental officials responsible for designing and implementing the policy of “ethnic cleansing.”

For example, Metropolitan Nikolaj, the highest ranking Serb Church official in Bosnia, stood between General Ratko Mladic and Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic—architects of the “ethnic cleansing”—and spoke of Bosnian Serbs' struggle as following the “hard road of Christ.” Serbian priests have blessed militias on their return from kill-and-plunder expeditions and have waved incense over a boxing match put on by the warlord (a criminal known as “Arkan”) associated with the worst atrocities against Muslims. Ethnonationalists celebrated the feast of St. Sava, founder of the Serbian Church, by burning down the 300-year-old mosque at Trebinje and massacring the towns Muslims. The mayor of Zvornik (a previously Muslim majority city) celebrated the completion of “ethnic clea... [the text as received breaks off at this point]