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Bosnian Religious Leaders Fill Political Void

7:32 AM, Jan 18, 2013 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Bosnia-Herzegovina has seen the last of hundreds of employees of the European Union, United Nations, and other international agencies, including dozens of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that once gathered there. They have left the country a politically-partitioned and economically-distressed state that, if not failed, seems ever deteriorating.  

Executive authority in Bosnia-Herzegovina rests with the internationally-controlled Office of the High Representative, currently occupied by Valentin Inzko, an Austrian. Inzko has the power to impose policies on and remove personnel from among the Bosnian authorities, without appeal or review of his decisions.

In addition, foreign administrators saddled the country with a complex system of institutional strata. It encompasses two zones: the “Republic of Serbs,” largely made up of the territories seized by Serbian forces in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, and the “Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina” mainly uniting Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Bosnian Croats.

The “Republic of Serbs” is a unitary entity. “Federation Bosnia” consists of 10 cantons, each with a constitutional and legal structure, but with little effective jurisdiction when compared with American states. This has led to an ambiguous, redundant, and labyrinthine system from which ordinary “Federation” Bosnians feel alienated as citizens.

Lack of opportunities for political engagement, dependence on international decision-makers, and general cynicism about pervasive corruption have therefore made many Bosnians indifferent to the political parties that appear on their ballots at election time. These consist of the “Muslim” but not Islamist Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the similar Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina (SBIH), the ex-Communist and multiethnic Social Democrats (SDP), the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), and the various parties in the “Republic of Serbs,” led by the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), another ex-Communist party, but with a sharp Serbian-nationalist edge.

Bosnia-Herzegovina has a remarkable heritage of mutual interfaith respect, even though its communal rivalries have led to violence. During the recent Christmas celebrations the Interreligious Council of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in which Catholics play the guiding role, took the initiative in calling for a positive and happy future for the country within the context of European stability. This was more than a holiday formality. Numerous Bosnians look to Catholic Croatia as a gateway to acceptance by Western Europe.

The composition of the Interreligious Council reveals the special burden undertaken by Catholics, who account for only about 15 percent of the total population, with the rest at 45 percent Muslim and 36 percent Orthodox Christian. Vinko Puljic, the country’s Catholic cardinal, is the president of the Council, and the Catholics keep the organization active before the public. Its three other participants are a minor Islamic cleric, Husejin Smajic, the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Herzegovina, Grigorije Duric, and the president of the Jewish community, Jakob Finci. Finci, a secular figure, is the only member of the council not to hold spiritual responsibilities.

The Jews of Sarajevo—who before World War II counted a fifth of the city’s population at the time of 60,000—continue to exercise moral and political influence. Finci is now an independent candidate for Sarajevo’s mayoralty. Bosnia-Herzegovina also has a notable history of saving Jews during the Holocaust. A local scholar, Eli Tauber, has produced an important volume, titled When Neighbors Were Real Human Beings, collecting the biographies of Bosnians—Muslim, Serb, and Croat—that concealed Jews from the Nazis. Tauber enumerates 47 memorialized by the Israelis at Yad Vashem as “Righteous Gentiles,” with the proviso, “This list is not final.”

Bosnia-Herzegovina is defined by such contrasts. Sarajevo is a Muslim-majority city, with some 80 percent of its 400,000 residents identified as such in 2002, but its downtown area features a lively annual Christmas market. Muslim devotees proclaim that the national character is anti-fascist and humanistic, because of the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust. Bosnian Muslim clerics have designated the Orthodox Christian celebration of Christmas, which fell on January 7, 2013, as the “sacred birthday of Prophet Jesus (Isa).”

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