Monday, September 26, 2005

Religious Nationalism in Serbia

William Montgomery

Religion and politics have always been intertwined. It is up to the historians to judge, for example, whether religion was the cause or excuse for the Crusades, the Inquisition, or even the September 11 terrorist attacks. I have been trying to sort out in my own mind the exact role that religion played in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the violence, which accompanied it. I have pretty much reconciled myself with the understanding that I will never really be sure.

It is clear that in the Communist era, the Catholic religion in Poland helped the Polish people enormously to maintain their sense of identity and national purpose. Pope John Paul II's influence in bringing the Communist system in that country to an end is well known and accepted as one of his most significant, positive achievements.

But what of similar religious nationalism in the Balkans? Did it play an equally important role and if so, was it a positive or negative one? Tito and his Partisans initially took an extremely harsh position against religious leaders, accusing them of collaborating with fascists and cetniks and also fearing that they spelled a threat of the type of nationalism he was trying to eradicate. Many were killed, including the Muslim Mufti of Zagreb, the Bishop of Dubrovnik, the Orthodox Bishop of Sarajevo and the Metropolitan of the Croatian Orthodox Church. Archbishop (later Cardinal) Stepinac of Croatia was arrested and imprisoned for refusing to bring the Church under Communist control. Alija Izetbegovic was jailed for expressing strong religious beliefs. Religious property throughout Yugoslavia was confiscated. The Serbian Orthodox church was subjected to great pressures to have the "right" leadership structure. Even as this persecution gradually diminished, it always remained crystal clear to everyone that regular religious practice would close the door to leadership positions in all elements of society from government to party to university to business. Virtually all churches, mosques, and synagogues were starved for funds.

When the Communist party structures started breaking down in the former Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s, religious observance in almost all the Republics increased tremendously. It did so not only because prohibitions were lifted, but also because it was an open and now accepted way to show nationalist feeling in a positive way. In other words, as in the Polish case, it was not only an upsurge in religious belief, but to some extent religious nationalism. One of the consequences of this, however, was that it helped to concretely differentiate the ethnic groups from each other. It is no accident, for example, that when the violence started, one of the primary targets was consistently the churches, mosques and monasteries of the other ethnic groups. It is probably impossible to accurately count how many of these religious structures were destroyed or damaged severely in the Balkans over the past decade or so.

Given the degree of repression they suffered under Communism for decades, it is no wonder that some of the religious leaders who came to the fore in those turbulent years of violence in the Balkans were passionate in their beliefs and strong exponents of this religious nationalism. I cannot accurately judge what influence these individuals had on events of the past fifteen years, but it is clear from the public record that some of them did encourage the more extremist elements and their activities. And continue to hold these beliefs now. It is precisely these examples, which, rightly or wrongly, have led to the endless rumors of Mladic, Karadzic and now Ante Gotovina being sheltered by individuals in their respective churches.

There is no question that this extremism, whether in church circles or the public at large, is a major factor impeding the reconciliation which is needed for the region to advance forward in the EU and even economically and culturally. This problem is moderating in Croatia, based in large part on the reality that Croatia is secure within its borders and has no serious external enemies with which to concern it. Under those circumstances, attention naturally is turning towards the more normal peacetime concerns of any society. This is a process, though, and not something which happens overnight. Moreover, every time Carla del Ponte and others issue new threats, warnings, or accusations over support for Ante Gotovina, Mladic, or Karadzic, it retards this very process and revives nationalistic tendencies.

I am much more concerned about Serbia, primarily because the future and exact borders of Serbia still remain uncertain and it is impossible to have political stability in these circumstances. Relations with Montenegro are deteriorating and it seems inevitable that a referendum on independence will be held there in early 2006. Meanwhile the future of Kosovo remains open and volatile. Questions remain, despite all the firm and unending statements of the international community, over the future of the Republik of Srpska in Bosnia.

What this uncertainty does is bring attention to nationalist concerns and leads political parties to focus far more on them than on the critical process of the democratic transition of Serbia. What I have observed over the past couple of years however is a disturbing trend of senior Serbian Orthodox figures taking the lead in religious/nationalist and political activity in a more aggressive way that I had earlier seen. It may well be because they sense a leadership vacuum or lack of significant political cohesiveness in society. In any case, their statements and actions have undoubtedly made it far more difficult for Serbia's politicians to carry out their responsibilities.

There are three major reasons for the increased activism and nationalism of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The first is the age and failing health of Patriarch Pavle, a true moderate who has done his best to safeguard and preserve his Church. A behind-the-scenes struggle for supremacy is underway in the Church among his possible successors and that has led some of them to push the Church into more extreme positions.

The second reason is that the Orthodox Church in general has not yet officially found a way to reconcile with the political developments of the past decades. For political reasons, both Macedonia and Montenegro want to have their "own" Orthodox churches, whereas the procedures for formally carrying out this process have not been completed. Basically, the "new" Orthodox churches need to obtain what is called autocephaly, where their senior bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop elsewhere. Since this has not formally been done, it has created serious conflicts between the existing Serbian Orthodox Church and the newly created Orthodox entities in Macedonia and Montenegro. These have now come to the fore with the Macedonian arrest and imprisonment of a Serbian Orthodox Priest for preaching and the use of a military helicopter by the Serbian Orthodox Church to install a "chapel" on a mountaintop in Montenegro. In both these cases, religious figures initially started the conflict and the resulting uproar led politicians on all sides to jump in with statements and actions that made unfortunate situations much worse.

The third reason is the genuine fear that religious leaders in Serbia have over the prospective fate of their monasteries and churches in Kosovo. They are frightened that any Kosovar independence will inevitably result in the destruction of priceless heritage of Serbia's religious foundation. Satisfactorily addressing that fear is a key principle of any final solution to the Kosovo problem.

While many of the concerns of the Serbian Orthodox Church are legitimate and the overall role of religious nationalism is an understandable consequence of the Tito years, Serbia now desperately needs moderation and pragmatism on the part of its religious leaders as it moves ahead to confront and finally resolve the unsettled questions, which hang over it. That currently is not the case and it is making the political situation even more difficult than it needs to be.

William Montgomery is a former Ambassador to Serbia


Anonymous said...

"New" Orthodox Churches? The MAcedonian Orthodox Church was created before the Serbian Orthodox Church. Where were the Serbs when the Bible speaks of Jesus' disciples spreading Christianity in Macedonia and Greece? Christianity was exported from Macedonia to Serbia just like Cyrillic and the language.

Anonymous said...

"Archbishop (later Cardinal) Stepinac of Croatia was arrested and imprisoned for refusing to bring the Church under Communist control."

Wasn't he involved in the Holocaust of Serbs in Croatia, and isn't that part of the reason he was "imprisoned". I've read it was "house arrest" and not real prison anyways.

Anonymous said...

Is William Montgomery an atheist? What are his religious qualifications and why does he and U.S. atheists or "pseudo Christians" play politics with religions so much?

What does he have to say about the U.S. soldiers in Bosnia who beat the Serbian priest and his son into comas in the spring of 2004?

Is the religion of U.S. diplomats lies and brute force against selected people such as the Serbs?

Anonymous said...

If US foreign policy wasn't so ambigiuos over past 60 years in being a major player at Yalta, and establishing a communistic state over a constitutional monarchy, that was in place-maybe moderation would be prefered over nationalism. But even until the end-backroom deals were being cut by both the US and Milosevic.

Anonymous said...

Well, when the former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia during Operation Whirlwind (The single largest ethnic cleansing in the balkans) was photographed on a Croatian tank, and being advised by former U.S. Military officers;I don't think the former Ambassador to Serbia has much credibility.

Anonymous said...

I thing you are jumping fast to your conclusions gentelmen. Amb. Montgomery is anything but anti-Serb from what I have read on his regular musings on He tends to write like somebody who deeply cares about the country he worked on, suggesting ways things could improve. I hardly agree with all his comments but they are a good challenge to anybody seriously concerned with the Balkans.