Bosnia’s Armies of God

They are everywhere. Often lavishly built and ridiculously tall, some look like architectural pranks. Sometimes they are built on former school or kindergarten grounds or in the front yards of houses whose owners have been chased off. Often they glitter in their unseemlyopulence right in the middle of a neighborhood that has obviously seen better days. Very occasionally you come across one whose modesty and sense of human purpose reassures somewhat. 

Along with sprawling shopping centers, uncountable gas stations, and loads of unfinished or empty houses in suburban areas, new or rebuilt churches and mosques as well as other religious objects, such as landmark crosses, are without doubt the most striking visual feature of today’s Bosnia. They have mushroomed since the 1992-1995 war.

The huge King Fahd Mosque in Sarajevo was built with money from the Saudi government. Photo by Aktron/Wikimedia Commons.

Such manifestations of religiosity, featuring super prominently in public and private life, might give the impression that Bosnia is a particularly pious nation.

Priests regularly speak in public on matters ranging from sex and eating or drinking habits to foreign policy, art, education, genocide, or court verdicts. They are usually taken very seriously.

In Christian parts of the country crosses often look down from hilltops or dangle from necks. Military and police units, kindergartens and schools, as well as government institutions have their patron saints.

In Muslim-majority areas, things as diverse as business gatherings, parliamentary sessions, and international art festivals are rescheduled because of Ramadan.

While the state still does its usual admin bit on births, weddings, and deaths, few families would nowadays dare not to let the priests play a role in letting them in and out of this world or get married. No matter if your faith is actually shaky. Priests are trained not to be squeamish, so even ardent atheists qualify. Bosnia’s last communist leader was buried earlier this year in the graveyard of an important mosque in a ceremony presided over by no less than the head of Bosnia’s Islamic Community.

Zlatiborka Popov-Momcinovic

Of course, public and private lives in many former communist countries have been “retraditionalized,” said Zlatiborka Popov-Momcinovic, a philosophy professor at the University of East Sarajevo. “The fall of communism … left a values vacuum. The old [communist] system of values had disintegrated and that brought about anxieties, with people lacking a sense of belonging and the old moral norms and rules no longer valid,” Popov-Momcinovic said.

She suggests, however, that a fair bit more than simply filling the gap left by communism is going on in Bosnia. Religion is the main ingredient of Bosnia’s ethnic identities and therefore divisions, with its function now being to “ideologically legitimize divisions and conflicts” and “turn our small differences into substantial ones and cement them,” she said.

Type in “kriz na” (cross at) and Google offers to finish your thought as “Kriz na Humu.” Hum is a hill that towers above the city of Mostar, where 19 years ago the Catholic Bosnian Croats and the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) fought one of the most vicious battles of the war, ending in what is still in effect a divided city. The gun that brought the iconic Ottoman Old Bridge down in 1993 was fired from Hum. The bridge was reconstructed after the war.

There’s no mistaking the message sent to Mostar’s Bosniaks by the cross on Hum hill Photo by Berina Pekmezovic.

The Croats controlled the hill, which can be seen from any corner of the city. So when peace broke out due to a draw on the battlefield, what better way of making clear that the Croat claim on the whole of Mostar is still alive than to erect a huge cross right on top of it for everyone to see?

Ivo Markovic

Ivo Markovic, a Franciscan theologian in Sarajevo, argues that in postwar Bosnia religious objects have been built “to show who a particular territory belongs to.”  “The cross above Mostar is a message to the Muslims. HVO [Croat wartime militia] encircled all Muslim areas by crosses to tell them that those territories don’t belong to them, so the cross here is a hostile symbol, a sign of division,” Markovic said.

Which is why Bosnian Serb war veterans in 2008 proposed to erect a 26-meter-high cross on a hill overlooking Sarajevo, now dominated by Bosniaks. One of the hills from which the Orthodox Christian Bosnian Serbs shelled the city, Zlatiste, remained part of the country’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska. The initiative to build a cross, which would have been visible from the city center, was abandoned after protests from Sarajevo and a counterproposal from the Bosnian Serb strongman, Milorad Dodik, then prime minister of Republika Srpska, to build a church instead.

Or perhaps for a better salt-to-open-wound example, consider the new Serb church in Budak, a location near Srebrenica just a stone’s throw from one of the mass graves and the memorial center where thousands of Bosniak victims of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide have been buried.

The Bosniaks play the game of marking their territory with places of worship equally well. For example, the Turhan Beg Mosque in Ustikolina, thought to be the oldest in the country, was destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces in the 1992-1995 war. Ustikolina is in a narrow stretch of territory in eastern Bosnia that now belongs to the Bosniak-Croat Federation entity, nearly surrounded by Republika Srpska and very close to Bosnia’s border with Serbia. When the mosque was rebuilt in 2007, instead of the original-size minaret of some 30 meters (98 feet) it got a new one twice as high, “so that it can even be seen from Serbia, to show that this is Bosnia,” Markovic said.

Nerzuk Curak

Nerzuk Curak, a political scientist at the University of Sarajevo, calls this phenomenon “urine marking.”

“Rebuilding of any religious object destroyed in the war is worthy of support. Often they are part of cultural heritage. They should be rebuilt to look exactly as they used to, but they often aren’t. Instead of beautiful, old Bosnian mosques we get megalomaniacal mosques that do not testify piety, but power. When religion testifies power, it is overbearing, which clashes with religious principles,” Curak said.

No institution has data on prayer attendance today compared with before the war. It is clear, however, that many more people in Bosnia come to churches and mosques now, especially around religious holidays, though some places of worship seem much busier than others, likely because of overcapacity in some towns. In a 2010 Gallup Balkan Monitor survey, more than 76 percent of respondents said religion plays an important part in their everyday life. Half of those polled claimed to have participated in a religious ceremony in the previous week.

The three largest ethnic identities of Bosnia formed along religious lines in the Ottoman era. Religious affiliation has been the main component of ethnic identity exactly because Bosnians of different ethnicities are very much alike in many other respects. Under communism – which in Yugoslavia for the most part marginalized rather than persecuted religion – many people, especially better-educated city dwellers, saw their religion primarily as a part of their family heritage from which they drew, with more or less enthusiasm, their ethnic identity. Institutions of organized religion played little or no part in their lives. While officially Bosnia is still a secular state, organized religion is now inescapable.

A Serbian Orthodox Church is being built near the Srebrenica memorial center. Photo by Berina Pekmezovic.


You simply can’t hide from a force that, in cahoots with political parties, busies itself with things ranging from denying or justifying genocide to regulating the activities of Santa Claus. The socio-political environment demands that you manifest not only your belonging to the religion that defines your ethnic group, but often also your religiosity. In fact, if you are ambitious you won’t go wrong if you parade it. Come to church when large crowds – or better still, cameras – are there and get into the first row. You may be known as a heavy drinker, but come Ramadan, make sure to tell everyone that you are fasting.

Put religion aside, Bosnia unfolds in front of you as a remarkably homogeneous nation. All Bosnians speak the same language (often all at the same time), cook similar food, laugh at the same jokes, nourish procrastination as life’s preeminent operating mode, consider compromise a dirty word, share the love of the same Latin American and Turkish soaps, and are almost universally intolerant of that menacing natural phenomenon that occurs when windows at opposite ends of the house are left open by a careless member of the household, otherwise known as draft.

This cultural proximity, if not exactly a sameness, extends well over Bosnia’s borders to encompass much of Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. “All of our ethnic groups came out of religion,” Markovic said.  “There are, for example, Montenegrins who collectively moved to Herzegovina. They were Orthodox Christians. But in places where there were no Orthodox churches, they went to Catholic ones and that’s how they became Croats. They now have relatives who are Serb,” For example, he said Vojislav Seselj, an ultranationalist Serb leader facing war-crimes charges, has Croat relatives in Herzegovina.

The term “narcissism of the small difference” has often been used in reference to South Slav nationalist excesses. Yet the fact that Bosnians of different creeds are very much alike – and in many cases literally related – does not render their separate ethnic identities any less real or easier to reconcile. On the contrary, Bosnians and their brethren in Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro have often demonstrated fairly convincingly that they are capable of making the most of those differences, the last time in the 1990s when they made a spectacle of themselves. 

It is often said that the peace hammered out in November 1995 at Dayton, Ohio, has turned out to be a continuation of war by largely peaceful means. Few would disagree, for it is obvious that more or less the only political issues that excite the three dominant ethnic blocs in Bosnia are the same ones that exercised them just before and during the war: identity, ownership of territory, and political representation. In other words, Bosnians disagreed and still disagree on what Bosnia was, is, and, most of all, should be. At least at the national level, they seem capable of politically addressing little else.

It is largely thanks to this blockade of the political process that Bosnia is lagging behind its neighbors on the road to membership in the European Union. Along with ethnic divisions, the slow pace of reform, corruption, and disrespect for human rights have been of concern for the EU for years. The issue that currently halts the country from submitting a credible membership application is linked to a December 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that Bosnia’s electoral legislation discriminates against people not belonging to one of the three biggest ethnic groups. Incredibly, Bosnia’s politicians haven’t yet agreed on how to comply with the ruling. Even though the court is not an EU institution, the EU insists that Bosnia comply first and only then hope for candidate status. “That was the first thing we should have done to show that we don’t discriminate against citizens on ethnic grounds, but that’s yet to happen,” said Zlatiborka Popov-Momcinovic, the philosophy professor. “Bickering over that still goes on and they can go for even five more years as this model of democracy is slow. … Institutions are slow and there is a question mark over how long it will take us to fulfill conditions and pass laws that would make us fit for EU membership.”

Not that these divisions necessarily affect everyday life as much as politics. While most people do subscribe to one of the three conflicting political narratives this doesn’t necessarily determine their choices when it comes to friendship, business, or indeed maintaining family ties across ethnic divides. While tacit or even institutionalized segregation persists in all parts of the country – though with sharp variations from one place to another – a lot of life manages to escape this reality, unlike, for example, in 1970s Northern Ireland, where sectarianism left very little space for everyday interaction between the two sides.

One may wonder where the big deal about all of this is. Isn’t this advent of religion expected or even natural? With the demise of Yugoslavia, the country and its three “constituent peoples” found themselves in a situation unlike any other in their previous history. Once they formulated very different answers to that new situation, it was only natural that they emphasized the most obvious differences among them, which then opened the way for religion to rein supreme over public life with all the expected abuses and excesses. The huge influence of clerics on politics, culture, and pretty much everything else may be promoting all kind of backwardness and is often plain ugly – all that mandatory religiosity of ordinary folks, many of whom clearly don’t really mean it, is surely quite demeaning – but all of that is bound to subside as Bosnia inevitably stabilizes and moves forward.

Still, one would struggle to spot any harbingers. On the contrary, the bond between politics and religion seems to be going from strength to strength. And if institutions of organized religion do indeed dictate public and private attitudes and are often indistinguishable from political structures, one wonders how the three biggest ethnic groups will ever overcome social prejudices that unite them – such as intolerance of sexual minorities or non-traditional religious groups – let alone the prejudices they hold toward one another in which religion plays the starring role.

Take the so-called “minority returns,” which are, of course, a good thing. “People who return to now form a [local] minority are the best people this country has. No one favors them. They live in an unfriendly environment and deserve a monument, for they are trying to … renew Bosnia’s ethos [of living together], which we are now being told never existed,” Curak, the political scientist, said.

Yet nearly all such returns are accompanied by the building or reconstruction of a place of worship, with politicians never failing to attend the opening ceremony. Investment in education or health facilities, let alone jobs, comes later, if at all.

Consider another example from Mostar. For centuries, the city had a vibrant Serb community. The majority of the city’s 25,000 Serbs fled during the 1992-1995 war. Some have returned to a city now in the grip of the Bosniak-Croat contest for control, a place where Serbs no longer count for much politically and are perhaps for that reason left alone for the most part. In recent years more Serbs have expressed a wish to return. The government of Republika Srpska is keen to help by co-financing, you guessed it, the reconstruction of an important church. It will also open its own office in Mostar. Furthermore, Belgrade has also repeatedly said it is keen on Mostar Serbs to return. To support them as well as to recognize Mostar as an important regional trade center it will open a consulate there later this year. Serbia’s consulate and the office of Republika Srpska will be housed at the Bishop’s Palace, the seat of region’s Orthodox Bishop, an arrangement that will admittedly eliminate commuting costs from efforts to maintain the oneness of Serb affairs in the city.

Emir Suljagic

A fair bit more consequential recent example of religion’s grip on life in Bosnia is from Sarajevo, where an attempt last year to start addressing discrimination in the education system was nipped in the bud by a coalition of religious authorities and a nominally secular political party. Emir Suljagic, education minister for the Sarajevo Canton, ordered the local public primary and secondary schools to remove from students’ overall averages their marks on religious education, which is optional; students who attended religious education classes ended up with unfairly higher grade averages than those who didn’t, simply because nearly all of them received high marks. The response from the Islamic Community was swift and brutal. Its head and other leaders threatened violence unless the measure was withdrawn. They insulted Suljagic, who then found in his mailbox a threatening letter complete with a bullet. One would have expected Suljagic’s Social Democratic Party, which came first in the 2010 elections campaigning for secular, civic values, to have stood by its minister, yet “my party simply sacrificed me and caved in to pressure from the Islamic Community,” said Suljagic, who was forced to resign.

Curak, who described the Islamic Community’s response as “scandalous,” said Suljagic’s proposal was rather modest. Indeed, many among Bosnia’s liberal minority would argue that religious education has no place in state schools, not least because kids are being separated as young as 7, with those belonging to minority groups or choosing not to attend any religious education classes running the risk of stigmatization.

Yet, such voices are unlikely to be a match for the leaders of the three biggest religions in Bosnia who, unsurprisingly, are in total unison when it comes to the status of religious education. For example, they take the fact that religious education is not yet taught in secondary schools in Republika Srpska and some cantons in the Bosniak-Croat Federation very seriously indeed. As Franjo Komarica, the Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka, told Deutsche Welle in March, religious leaders are “patient but determined” and are “working step by step” to make sure that religious education is introduced in secondary schools throughout the country.


Tihomir Loza is deputy director of Transitions. Berina Pekmezovic is a reporter with the Center for Investigative JournalismThis article was produced for the Next in Line project, which is co-funded by the European Union.