A Dialogue on Reconciliation in Belgrade

by Jim Forest

The high point of a meeting of church leaders gathered in Belgrade in for several days in February 1996 was a confessional statement by Father Mato Zovki, a priest now living in Croatia but soon to return to Sarajevo, where he is Vicar General of the diocese. He was taking issue with his friend and fellow Roman Catholic, the Archbishop of Belgrade, Franc Perko, who earlier in the day had attributed the crimes committed in the wars in former Yugoslavia to atheists. Pulling a blue rosary from his pocket, Father Zovki said that he had met Catholics who boasted of murdering Muslims and destroying Muslim towns while wearing rosaries around their necks. “Whatever we say about them, they regarded themselves as devout Catholics, not atheists. We Catholics cannot say we had nothing to do with the terrible things they did.” He didn’t “find enough courage” in religious leaders to be “prophetic in confronting their failures.”

All three religious communities in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia have members who committed appalling war crimes in the past five years and who regard themselves not only as defenders of their nation but of their faith. No doubt they have met nationalist pastors who blessed their war-time activities. But few religious leaders have yet been willing to acknowledge that their own religious community did too little, was too cautious, or may have helped stir nationalist passions that resulted in crimes against neighbors.

The meeting in Belgrade, called “An Ecumenical Dialogue on Reconciliation,” may prove to be a significant step within the Christian community to help heal the wounds created by war in the Balkans. The event was sponsored by the Theological Faculty of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Geneva-based Conference of European Churches. Sixty church delegates took part, half of them from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia, the other half from the rest of Europe and North America.

The meeting was opened by Patriarch Pavle, 81 years old, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church since 1991, a modest monk well known for his readiness to meet with anyone who seeks him out and for his preference for travel by tram and bus. In his brief address, he called for the reconstruction of destroyed homes, churches and mosques and prayed for hatred to be extinguished by “truthful forgiveness.” He stressed our duty as co-workers of God not to abide by narrow political or factional criteria but to see that the Church in any nation must raise that nation to the stature of the people of God. “If [the Church] deviates from that direction … it ceases to be that which it should be: the Church of the Living God.” Referring to the debate within European churches about whether or not the churches former Yugoslavia acted as they should have during the war, he concluded that any church in the Christian family must be “judged by men of goodwill, and ultimately and unmistakably by God.”

For many people simply being present for such a dialogue was hard work. Father Vladimir Vukasinovi, assistant professor of liturgics at the Theological Faculty in Belgrade, told me he had been too upset to say a single word during the first workshop he took part in. He could only think about his grandparents, all four of whom were murdered during the Second World War. “The Muslims killed my mother’s parents. The Croats killed my father’s parents. They have tried to kill us Serbs three times in this century and many times before that. And they will keep trying. It is dreaming to think in another way.” Yet I could see him struggling hard to do so.

The next day Father Vladimir was taking an active part in group dialogue, objecting to the idea that when large numbers of people are involved in a communal act like war, no one bears individual responsibility for his participation. “There is no such thing as collective sin, only personal sins. Even when groups commit sin, still each person involved is committing a personal sin. In war the first sin is to kill another, the second sin to refuse to be a free person. Similarly we never relate simply to a group, only to concrete persons. There is no everyone, only persons with names, only Peter and Paul. The first step in reconciliation is to make contact with an actual person.”

“Reconciliation is possible,” he said, “but it cannot come from a thousand hours of political debate. It cannot come from the Tito way, imposed from above. It can only come from repentance.”

One of the observers at the conference was Dragan Dragojlovi, Minister of Religions in the Serbian government and a poet by avocation — and apparently an Orthodox Christian, as he crossed himself in the Orthodox manner when entering the chapel of the Theological Faculty. He saw the wars in former Yugoslavia as more religious in character than religious leaders want to admit, “not that many combatants are devout believers but they make little if any distinction between national and religious identity nor do their religious communities encourage them to make any such distinction.”

“So is our war a religious war?” asked Father Anastasije Raketa, a young Orthodox priest from a destroyed village in Bosnia. “Yes — and no. Religion is not itself the origin of the war but the instrument of war. The key to the solution is in collective responsibility not only of the nations that fought each other but of the world community.” He recalled growing up in Bosnia with not only Orthodox but Croat and Muslim friends. “But suddenly winds blew from the north, south, east and west, and everything was destroyed, and not only neighbor killing neighbor. I knew personally Serbs who were killed by American bombs — one small house suddenly gone with all the people who had lived in it? Could they be guilty of anything? So we must think of collective responsibility and collective repentance. We have to find our own guilt and not simply accuse other people. As long as we search for the guilty, there will be no peace and there will be no reconciliation.”

Prof. Dimitar Kirov of the Theological Faculty in Belgrade said that the recent history of Yugoslavia had much to do with the war, including the suppression of all religious education. “The system imposed was not atheist so much as anti-theist. But a vacuum cannot exist in the life of real persons. If you are nothing, then you see your neighbor as a nothing.”

For Father Vladimir, recent events had little to do with the Tito era. “This war is the continuation of World War II. It isn’t helpful to blame the Communists, except to note that Tito would not allow any process of actual reconciliation.”

Mother Maria Rule, an Orthodox nun from England who lived for eleven years in Serbia, pointed out that it us not only the effects of the last two wars we have to think about in understanding Serbians. “Here I learned a different way of consciousness,” she said. “They have never gone more than fifty to seventy years without an oppressor. This is the primary experience.” The result is a Serbian tendency “to put people first in frames. First so-and-so is a Muslim, only afterward is he a man with a big heart. First a label, then a person.”

Among topics that emerged repeatedly in both group and private conversation is the harm caused when evils committed in the past are not admitted or are minimized, when there is no sign of repentance or effort made to seek forgiveness. No one knows exactly how many Serbs were killed by Croats during the last world war, when Croatia became an independent fascist state obsessed with racial purity. The usual estimate of people murdered by the Croatian Ustache is 600,000, chiefly Serbs but also Jews, gypsies and others who regarded either as racially inferior or as political criminals. Regarding the Serbs, the slogan of Croatia’s head of state, Ante Paveli, was “one third killed, one third converted [to Catholicism], one third expelled.” For Serbs the name of the largest Croatian concentration camp, Jasenovac, is as infamous as Auschwitz is to the Jews — the difference being that not only Jews but everyone knows about Auschwitz while only Serbians know about Jasenovac.

In the half century since the war ended, both the German government and the churches of Germany have in numerous ways acknowledged the crimes committed in the Hitler years, many times asked forgiveness, and sought to compensate survivors. But the Croatian Catholic Church has remained silent, neither acknowledging the genocide that happened (in which Catholic clergy often played an active part) nor seeking forgiveness. When Croatia again became an independent state, it chose as its symbol a red and white chessboard design almost identical to the one used during the time of fascism. Still more ominous, its head of state, Franjo Tudjman, is the author of a book in which he sought to minimize the number of Serbs killed (he estimates 60,000 victims). It was the kind of “study” that neo-nazis publish about the Holocaust. Now Croatia plans a memorial at Jasenovac not to the people murdered at the camp but to Croatian soldiers who died in the war. “In this way they want to hide the crimes,” said a Serbian layman at the conference. “But there is not one Serbian family that does not have people who died at Jasenovac or similar places in those years and every day we remember what happened to them. To Americans such events may seem in the distant past, but to us they are very fresh and painful. Even today if the Catholic bishops of Croatia were to admit what happened and express their sorrow, it would do much to change the way we relate to each other. What we feel instead is that we are still regarded as an inferior people whose disappearance would be no loss to the human race, people whom it is not a sin to kill.”

What we heard much less about were the war crimes Serbians have committed against Croats and Muslims in the past five years and the fact that it is not only the only the Croatian Catholic Church which is infected by nationalism, but also the Serbian Orthodox Church. “Our problem,” said one Orthodox priest, “is that many of us, when we make the sign of the cross, might as well be saying, ‘In the name of the Father, the Son, and Saint Sava.’ This is what can easily happen whenever a church becomes the sole guardian of national identity. We are experts on the sins committed against our nation and try to forget the sins our people have committed against others.”

“I am thinking about what churches, not just individuals, can contribute to reconciliation,” said Heinz Rüegger, Secretary of the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches. “As long as there is nobody who takes responsibility, we cannot solve it. Consider Germany and World War II and those people who, after the war, were able to take responsibility upon themselves even though they were not immediately responsible for the crimes that were committed. The impact of their action was immense.”

Bishop Ignjatije, a young member of the Serbian hierarchy and a professor at the Theological Faculty, pointed out that the church had no “authoritative influence” in shaping national policies. Still, he didn’t regard the church as blameless. “We [in the church] did not manage to differentiate a common stand for the church. The tendency was to escape into an abstract space that really did not mean too much. Reality was different. People wanted something concrete from the church. We were asked to take a principled stand and give a principled viewpoint. Such a thing may be possible in the west but it is very difficult in our situation.”

He felt that in both the east and the west there is a wrong perception about the kingdom of God, on the one side too caught up in history, on the other too detached. The western side tries to create of its own efforts the kingdom of God. The Orthodox side has the tendency to passively await the gift of the kingdom of God, identifying eschatology with history. A synthesis is needed. “The truth lies in communal life,” he said. “Communion with the other person has primary value.”– on the one hand those who want to follow the historical process and those who await the coming kingdom of God.

Because of the Orthodox tendency to be passive in its response to history, “we [Serbian Orthodox] may have seemed biased in the eyes of the west, at least we always made a clear distinction between what we in the church were doing and what the [political] authorities were doing.” He added, “I can’t understand how it is not understood in the civilized world that there is not only one guilty party in a conflict.” Nonetheless he regretted that the church had made “some compromises which did not help either the church nor the people. Some of us have the idea that we don’t need anyone around us, that all around us are our enemies. Our children are taught in school that the other person is the enemy.”

Jean Fischer, General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches, expressed the worry that, unless religious leaders take a lead in expressing repentance for specific crimes committed on their own side, the cycle of violence and counter-violence will simply go on and the Dayton agreements will become one more item of failure in the history books. He recalled that the French did not make fine distinctions about Germans after the war. “The French considered all Germans — all — as Nazis. It has taken fifty years to get over this. We should do what we can to prevent this happening to other peoples so that they are not regarded as collectively guilty.” He went on to speak of the collective guilt of many countries for the war in the Balkans. “It wasn’t just the peoples within the borders. Where did the weapons come? In which factories were the landmines made?”

He noted that most people are conditioned not by rational thinking but can be influenced by significant symbolic gestures. He asked, “How can an entire people be brought out of a state of general antagonism of one people for another? What gestures can religious leaders offer that can help ordinary people see beyond antagonism?”

Fischer suggested one area of possible ecumenical work to overcome division would be a joint effort to help find the 8,000 people who are listed as disappeared — many will probably be found in mass graves — and to provide a religious burial according to the traditions of the victim’s family. Many families simply don’t know what happened to particular persons and still nurse the hope that a missing person may be found alive.

Bishop Henrik Svenungsson of the Church of Sweden noted that many local pastors look back to times when Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims lived together peaceably and still long for such times to return. “We are not at the zero point. Also we must not think the process of reconciliation isn’t already underway. Many people are doing work to heal social wounds. One thing the churches can do is to offer strong support to those already doing reconciliation work at the local level.”

The problem of the mass media was a recurrent topic. There was a consensus that the world press has normally presented a one-sided, dangerously out-of-balance picture of events in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina so that the western world is presented with the impression that overwhelming guilt for the war and its crimes belong to the Serbs, with the Croatians a distant second and the government of Bosnian-Herzegovina nothing more than a victim. Bogdan Lubardi, assistant professor of philosophy at the Theological Faculty, spoke of the “virtual reality” the mass media has created that takes the place of reality. “What can we do about media domination? It is spiritual deceit on a global scale.”

The reality of the war was brought on vividly by a visit during the conference to a local hospital where many people seriously wounded in the war (some as combatants, others simply bystanders who stepped on a landmine) are being fitted with artificial limbs and learning to use them. It was in some ways an inspiring visit — one could see the progress patients were making in dealing with a personal catastrophe. But the hospital is understaffed, under-equipped and has no program for follow-up work once patients leave. All the patients are missing at least part of one limb, many are far more severely handicapped. The emotional and spiritual struggle is just as hard as the physical. Attempted suicides are not unusual. In most cases the former soldiers have not only have lost part of their bodies but their wives or girl friends. Often close relatives and friends have been killed. Many have lost their homes. Now they enter into an economy in which even the able-bodied have a difficult time surviving. Jelena, a young nurse several of us talked with, said she often falls asleep crying.

Dr. John Taylor, staff member of the Conference of European Churches and the main organizer of the Ecumenical Dialogue, was confident that, despite painful moments and the disagreements that were expressed, the dialogue had been constructive. “Reconciliation is a process, not something you can make. It is something that can only be done step by step.”

If the conference had a single theological stress, it was on the Holy Trinity and the love that binds the three Divine Persons into perfect oneness — a model of diversity in unity with profound implications in social life. We were reminded of the teaching of St. Sergius of Radonezh, “Contemplation of the Holy Trinity destroys all enmity.”

Actions for Reconciliation

This is an extract from a text approved unanimously by the Ecumenical Dialogue for Reconciliation at its final plenary meeting in Belgrade on February 22:

Christian faith gives energy and vision to Christians to work with their neighbors of other faiths or world-views, to heal the divisions and hatreds which have been forged from the past. In the countries of the former Yugoslavia in the last five years alone, millions have been driven from their homes, hundreds of thousands have been killed, and thousands have disappeared and may be found dead, unburied or in collective graves. Without repentance and compassionate action in response to these tragedies, reconciliation is an empty word.

Participants committed themselves and called on their churches, international organizations and neighbors to undertake and support reconciling actions, which include:

– Restoring homes to the displaced, ideally in their original regions, and providing pastoral care;

– Searching for the missing, ensuring a decent burial for the dead, and caring for the bereaved;

– Helping rebuild the economy with special attention to restoring self confidence and providing job opportunities for women and those disabled by war;

– Reaching out to youth deprived and traumatized by war;

– Repairing or rebuilding destroyed places of worship whether of one’s own community or of one’s neighbor;

– Promoting multicultural education (including religious curricula), interreligious dialogue and common prayerful witness for peace;

– Encouraging religious media not to contribute but to counteract the one-sided misrepresentation of complex situations which is so characteristic of much mass media coverage of Balkan events and which propagates fear and hatred;

– Offering the services of international or local religious leaders to help monitor elections;

– Continuing ecumenical and interreligious dialogues, in particular including the rich contribution that women make to reconciliation;

– Contributing experiences and visions of reconciliation in the countries of the former Yugoslavia to the Second European Ecumenical Assembly at Graz in 1997 on the theme of “Reconciliation: Gift of God and Source of New Life”

Although the vast majority of people long for peace, specific steps to achieve reconciliation can be difficult and controversial. Some of the most courageous and effective actions that Christians and their neighbors undertake begin at the local level, but these can be a powerful challenge to national and international leaders. Christian clergy and laity can be among those who help lead the way to reestablishing community. They can set an example through public confession of past failures and public criticisms of specific violations of human rights. Churches can play a vital role in the creation of democratic social structures, being vigilant in defense of social justice, and ready to challenge political and military leaders when necessary.