Analysts say extremism can be avoided by improving the inter-religious dialogue and by remaining mindful of societal factors that often lead to conflict.
By Ivana Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 12/08/13
Orthodox Christianity is Serbia's predominant religion. [Nada Bozic/SETimes]
Religion in Serbia developed significantly in the past two decades, but along with it has come concerns about the potential for inter-ethnic conflict and religious extremism.
While there have been few recent incidents of violence motivated by religion, experts say that continued work is necessary by both the state and religious communities to promote communication and eliminate any atmosphere in which extremism could grow.
Under communism in the former Yugoslavia, religion was marginalised to the point of being almost forbidden. But religious communities in Serbia have been growing since the 1990s. According to the country's 2011 census, 94 percent of Serbia's 7.18 million citizens say they are believers.
Orthodox Christianity is Serbia's predominant religion (84 percent), but nearly 10 percent of believers in the country belong to other religions. Catholics number about 357,000, and there are about 223,000 Muslims.
During the tenure of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, Orthodox Christianity was closely tied to Serbian nationalistic chauvinism. But communication and understanding between religions in Serbia has improved.
In Sandzak, a majority Muslim region in southwestern Serbia, some ethnic and religious tensions are still present. But Saedetin Mujezinovic, a city council member in Novi Pazar, Sandzak's largest city, said there are signs of progress because more people have embraced the idea of a future for Serbia within the EU and more officials are promoting tolerance.
"We [Muslims] were celebrating the holy month of Ramadan and it was really nice to see our Orthodox and other neighbours as well as the state officials interested in details about it, participating in it, congratulating it. ... This comes from the idea that only together we can stop extremism, which stops us on our path toward the EU by underlining differences as obstacles, which is wrong because our differences are our wealth," Mujezinovic said.
He added that the state and the whole society should do more to halt any conditions that might contribute to the escalation of religious extremism and to provide education so that misunderstandings aren't created simply by a lack of information.
Monseigneur Stanislav Hocevar, Roman Catholic archbishop of Belgrade since 2001, told SETimes that inter-religious relations in Serbia have improved since his arrival in Serbia from Slovenia.
"I'm now very welcome everywhere," Hocevar said. “People are open for conversation. Some basic prejudices do not exist anymore as well as threatening letters and threats on the street I used to have during my first two years here. The majority of Serbia now needs to have good relations with representatives of all minority groups -- national, ethnic and religious."
Catholicism is Serbia's largest minority religion. [Nada Bozic/SETimes]
Hocevar said Orthodox Christian Serbs have told him they would welcome the Pope to visit Serbia, but he added that in spite of such apparent acceptance, there remains room for progress.
"At the beginning almost no one wanted it, but now almost every Orthodox Serb I have talked to personally says they would like that the Pope to come to Serbia. But the problem is that this is something people only talk about at a personal level. When they are in a group, they do not dare to talk anymore, and the reason is the lack of public dialogue, which should be changed," Hocevar said.
He said that while there is no official religious extremism, such attitudes are present among people who are influenced by conflicts from the past. The role of religious communities to improve inter-religious dialogue and reduce extremism is crucial, Hocevar said.
"Having in mind that we live on the bridge between East and West, where history is complex as well as relations between majorities and minorities, in a religious and national sense, as religious community representatives we are aware that dialogue must be friendly, continuous and that all historical issues can't be solved immediately. We work on this through frequent contacts and talks about all issues like restitution and relations with the society, state, media and education," Hocevar said.
Nikola Knezevic, CEO and founder of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Politics and Society and a teacher at the Protestant Theological Faculty in Novi Sad, told SETimes that although the level of inter-religious dialogue in Serbia is satisfactory, there are other factors that could contribute to religious extremism.
"Poor economic conditions, uncritical acceptance of nationalistic [rhetoric], cultural degradation of society and a lack of proper education are just few of the conditions that create a favourable climate for the creation of extremist movements," Knezevic said. "Recent surveys have shown a link between anxiety, insecurity and religious extremism. The results are contributing to the thesis that people who have such problems often create their ideals according to extreme measures."
Knezevic added that religious extremism frequently grows out of misinterpretations that portray religious principles in nationalistic, ideological or political terms.
"It is always a question of the absence of identity, because a person who follows his extreme religious views is unsure of his own identity and identifies with a particular group of people with the same principles, and refuses to communicate with others who are different out of fear he will endanger himself," Knezevic said.
He added that the state and religious institutions share responsibility for curbing religious extremism.
Nikola Knezevic, founder of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Politics and Society, said Serbian officials should be mindful of societal factors that contribute to religious extremism. [Nada Bozic/SETimes]
"The state task is to protect each citizen's right to life and freedoms that are guaranteed by the constitutional act. It should be more effective in prosecuting violence and showing that violence will not be tolerated. The problem is systemic, and solutions should be systemic. Religious institutions should distance themselves from those who use religious principles for their own ideological and political purposes. Also, they should constantly emphasise their fundamental values: respect for others, love, forgiveness and non-violence," Knezevic said.
Zivica Tucic, editor of the Religious Information Agency and a well-noted analyst on religious topics, told SETimes that the conservative tendencies of some religious leaders can foster extremism.
"Serbian Orthodox priests will not react if some Orthodox Christian, in his presence, says that Catholics are heretics, on the wrong religious side, not to mention Baptists, Methodists and others," Tucic said.
"When extremists are detected, and when they could be prone to violence, the state must act and religious communities should warn prosecutors about dangerous groups. Police and secret police should know who is prone to violence, as well. Officially, no religious community has militant groups, but individuals in churches probably support some of them," Tucic said.
Mirko Djordjevic, a member of the editorial board and publishing council of Republika, a biweekly scholarly publication that analyses the state's democratic transformation, said full freedom of religious expression can help stop extremism and its use for political purposes.
"There is one more remedy for this, and it has already been tried and has been successful, but it is something that we, in the Balkans, do not have -- not in Serbia or Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo, and that is true media freedom and media that report correctly. Our media are acting like passionate fans," Djordjevic said.
He added that both freedom of religious expression and freedom of the media depend on political will since churches and religious communities in the Balkans are strongly connected with political structures.
"An intellectual society also has a key role in prevention of religious extremism. It seems that we do not have this covered and have to improve it. Intellectuals are those who could stop this process," Djordjevic said.
What steps should Serbia take to improve inter-religious relations? Share your thoughts in the comments section.