Faiths fail to confront factions in Balkan wars


Only good could come from people of all faiths speaking wit one voice against the hostilities in Bosnia, a local Muslim leader believes.

But it is not happening -- not in Baltimore, not anywhere.

The failure of the different religions to present a united front TTC against the war in the Balkans is being traced to a variety of causes: summer vacations, preoccupation with other problems, the escalation of ethnic fears and hostility, denials of responsibility.

Imam Mohammad Bashar Arafat of the Islamic Society of Baltimore thinks it's time to overcome those obstacles.

"I believe always in making bridges," he said recently.

Muslims have been a principal target of the warfare in Bosnia.

The only effort so far to bring Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Muslims together to denounce the violence has been in Europe, and it is still tentative, local and national church leaders reported.

Ancient religious differences among these three faiths are part of the historical roots of the civil strife.

The Conference of European Churches has been trying -- but without much success as yet -- to promote dialogue among the Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Protestant religious communities in the former Yugoslavia, a spokesman for the National Council of Churches said in New York.

An Episcopal priest in Baltimore County suggested a reason for this lack of success.

The history of religious warfare in Eastern Europe "is an embarrassment to the churches. They're in denial," the Rev. Christine Cole said. She is interim rector of St. Margaret's Episcopal Parish off Joppa Road, east of Towson.

Neither of the Baltimore region's two most active ecumenical organizations, one of which is staffed by Ms. Cole's husband, has initiated talks or scheduled a meeting on the Bosnia-Herzegovina crisis.

Various reasons were given, including the press of other concerns, summer absences and the probable futility of such activity.

Calling the bloodshed in Bosnia "the Balkan version of the tragic Irish situation," the Rev. Roy Cole, director of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, said:

"It's demonic. There is a religious element, of course, but I am not convinced it is religiously driven. The churches have been beleaguered for so long in that part of the world, they may not be willing to enter into dialogue."

His council might try to arrange a program on Bosnia in the fall, Father Cole said.

John C. Springer, director of Baltimore Clergy and Laity Concerned, said his local ecumenical group is concentrating its efforts on the famine in Somalia.

In recent letters to 504 clergy, he announced a Walk Against Hunger in Africa, scheduled for Oct. 24 at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"As terrible as the suffering in the former Yugoslavia is, we cannot help but contrast the priority given the European relief effort with the lesser attention given Africa," Mr. Springer said.

He added in an interview that he felt the interest in the plight of the Eastern Europeans was to the exclusion of the Somalis and therefore "racist."

Acting separately, religious leaders whose adherents are reportedly killing and torturing one another in the Yugoslav republics -- the Serbian Orthodox Christians, the Croatian Roman Catholics, the Bosnian Muslims -- have all prayed for peace.

Also separately, though with increasing cooperation, humanitarian agencies of various faiths have collected food and medicine for homeless refugees and other victims of the Balkan war. (Most are also active in Somalia.)

The agencies include Church World Service, Lutheran World Relief, World Council of Churches, International Orthodox Christian Charities, B'nai B'rith Disaster Relief Fund and Catholic Relief Services.

But the relief efforts are not enough, Karel Zelenka insisted. He is a relief worker who recently returned to Baltimore from a fact-finding visit to Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia.

"The main thing they [the war's victims] want is to stop the bombardment, stop the fighting," Mr. Zelenka said. "No one is lifting a finger in that direction."

He is on the staff of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, which he emphasized must always be "apolitical." Speaking privately, however, he said it was his inescapable conclusion from the evidence in Bosnia during his July 12-15 trip that "75 to 80 percent of the aggression is Serbian."

The Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., who also was on the fact-finding team headed by two Roman Catholic bishops, agreed. Not blaming the Serbs "allows the international community to keep its distance from a humanitarian disaster of enormous dimensions," Father Christiansen said.

The priest heads the Justice and Peace Office of the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington. He referred to a call by the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle in Belgrade for ecumenical meetings to bring "spiritual influence on our nations which are tragically made enemies of one another."

The patriarch made his proposal June 30 to Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Zagreb. Acting on it, the American church delegation tried to meet with the Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan Jovan in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Father Christiansen said, "but he was not responsive."

The Rev. Ray Velencia, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America and vice president of the Central Maryland Ecumenical Council, described "deep, deep, deep divisions" that he said have put the Serbian Orthodox on the defensive for hundreds of years.

He said he was "skeptical about the slant of the almost relentless finger-pointing at the Serbs" in the current warfare.

"Common sense tells us that the atrocities can't all be one side's fault," Father Velencia said, adding that interfaith initiatives in Baltimore should be aimed at educating people of different faiths about why there may be long-standing tensions among them.

But Mr. Zelenka said, "One of the problems is going back in history. Today is not 50 years ago, not 100 years ago. The fact is that all the fighting is taking place in territories outside of Serbia. Once you get there, you see clearly what's happening.

"Peace talks can work only when both sides feel nothing is to be gained by fighting," Mr. Zelenka said.

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