As the region's political leaders find grounds for disagreement, regional religious groups seek common ground.
By Lily Lynch for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 18/06/12
Patriarch Irinej, (centre), head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, made an historic trip to Croatia this month. [Reuters]
While the recent election of former ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic as the president of Serbia has already prompted several disputes between the new head of state and others in the region, interfaith dialogue between the high representatives of various religious groups is as critical as ever.
Earlier this month, Patriarch Irinej, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, visited Croatia, in what many in the region have deemed a "historic" visit. During his three-day trip, Irinej met with the leader of the Croatian Catholic Church, Josip Bozanic, members of the Croatian Bishops' Conference, the Archbishop of Zagreb, as well as Croatian President Ivo Josipovic and Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic. Irinej also awarded Zagreb mayor Milan Bandic the Order of Emperor Constantine the Great.
With the election of Nikolic, who comes burdened with controversy over his past association with late strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Hague indictee Vojislav Seselj, many have feared that the reconciliation process over the Balkan wars of the 1990s could stall or regress.
But some believe that religious groups can play an important role in the reconciliation process. As Josipovic told reporters during the Serbian Patriarch's visit, "In times that generate feelings that are not in the spirit of peace and reconciliation, contacts between churches, believers, talks and dialogue mean a lot for peace and reconciliation."
The Serbian Orthodox Church agreed that the visit was important for regional dialogue.
"We wanted to make information about the Patriarch's visit as public as possible, so we made an announcement about the visit in both Serbian and English, and published a joint statement from Patriarch Irinej and Cardinal Bozanic on our website," Deacon Ivica Cairovic of the Serbian Orthodox Church told SETimes.
Patriarch Irinej met with the leader of the Croatian Catholic Church, Cardinal Josip Bozanic, among others. [Reuters]
The meeting between religious leaders in Croatia was especially timely in light of a controversy sparked by comments Nikolic made during a May interview with German media. Nikolic told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that the Croatian city of Vukovar, which was heavily damaged by Serb forces in 1991, was a "Serb town," and that Croats had no reason to return there.
"If Mr. Nikolic's statement means a return to the ideas of the 1990s, I can say in the name of all Croatian citizens that those ideas will not be realized," Josipovic said.
Representatives of the Croatian government did not attend Nikolic's June 11th presidential inauguration in Belgrade.
Serbia's new President Tomislav Nikolic has made statements that some worry may threaten reconciliation efforts. [Reuters]
Some religious analysts, however, believe Irinej's trip to Croatia was merely a "protocol visit." As Ivana Bartulovic, a political scientist with the Centre for Religious Studies in Belgrade, told SETimes, "I think this was more of a political move than anything else."
At the same time, Bartulovic said that there are other signs of interfaith co-operation in the region, and though they receive far less media attention than the Patriarch's visit to Croatia, they may provide more sustainable grounds for reconciliation over time.
The Centre for Religious Studies organises educational programmes for high representatives of religious communities in Serbia and the region, as well as believers from various faiths.
Bartulovic said that through this programme, organisers attempt to "establish sustainable communication on those topics on which different religious groups may agree, such as education, healthcare, and community service." Recently, the interfaith educational programme has expanded to include discussions on topics such as ecology and women's rights.
In Kosovo, few religious leaders are willing to speak openly about inter-religious dialogue, though the American University in Kosovo has organised such events, including a recent meeting in which all major religious leaders attended a visit by a high representative of the Anglican Church.
As Ivana Stevanovic, an independent researcher on identity and discourse from Belgrade, told SETimes, "These days, you can sometimes see the leaders of all three main religions, Islamic, Catholic and Orthodox, walking through downtown Prizren. So they do meet. What they are talking about, however, that is a different issue."