A street in Sarajevo city centerAfter Albania – Bosnia. Pope Francis continues to dedicate special attention to the Balkans, a region on Europe’s periphery which have an Orthodox majority, as well as being characterised by numerous Muslim communities. And it is specifically Orthodox and Muslims, for different reasons, who are two fundamental interlocutors of this pontificate.
But whereas in Albania the Pope had to deal with a reality of peaceful coexistence between religions that is helped by the fact that the confessions in the country belong to the same ethnic grouping and experienced the same persecution at the hands of the Communist regime, the same cannot be said about Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The bloody war of the 1990s between Serbs, Muslims and Croats was frozen by the Dayton Accords of 1995 but at the price of the creation of a elephantine bureaucracy which is suffocating the country. And thus with the lights turned off after the centenary of the First World War, Bosnia remains at the starting line of growth while beneath the ashes a fire of protest is smouldering.
For that matter, reasons to be interested in Sarajevo go beyond the magnificent architecture which in its mixture of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian styles reminds the visitor that here Islam is truly European. Postcard pictures no longer correspond to reality. It is true: in less than four hundred yards of the historic centre a synagogue, two cathedrals (one Catholic and one Orthodox) and a large mosque stretch up towards the sky. But in fact the Jewish community, after giving to the world masterpieces such as the famous illustrated Haggadah, has almost disappeared because of the extermination at the hands of the Nazis. And the Orthodox cathedral that stands out in the centre of the old city has not been very much visited after the ethnic cleansing unleashed by the Serbs at the beginning of the 1990s brought forth to the new “Serbian Sarajevo”. Even though no document is required to pass from one zone to another, the gulf between the two cities is still wide.
Other images are perhaps less touristic but not for this reason are they less incisive. For example, in a context where the Catholic minority pays twice over for the difficult economic context, the ‘Sveti Josip’ Catholic school, the only multi-ethnic reality of this capital city, has students from the three religious confessions. And although it is often repeated, either on good or bad grounds, that the principal difficulty in relations with Muslims lies in the absence of a central authority, this is certainly not the case of Sarajevo where the Austrian domination left as a legacy a complex hierarchical architecture within the Muslim community. The Islamic Faculty of Theology, which was opened by the Austrians, continues to produce lively thought about the role of Islam within a secular and liberal state together with an attempt to conserve the profile that is characteristic of Bosniak Islam (Turkish by culture, open to Sufism, Hanafi in terms of law, and Maturidi in theology), in the face of the advance, locally as well, of Wahhabi Islam in its quietist and militant declinations.
In essential terms, Sarajevo did not emerge out of an abstract decision and nobody planned to build the Jerusalem of the Balkans as a great ‘park of faiths’. At a much more practical level, the various religions confessions found themselves on the banks of the River Miljacka for commercial reasons because such a location was convenient. Everything else was born from that starting point. Thus perhaps a solution to the social problems that today beset the population and deprive many people of the prospect of a future will allow, more than a large number of symbolic initiatives, a new cultural synthesis.
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