My Faith, the Interreligious Council of BaH and Global Citizenship

By Marijan Oršolić

MarijanHow does your faith help or hinder your engagement with people of other cultures and religions?

Dear guests, I come from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a land which is best described by the metaphor of Czech writer, Kundera, as a land of “maximal diversity in a minimal space”. It’s a mosaic composed of 3 major nations which are almost always identified with 3 religious beliefs: Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, plus a significant Jewish community. It is a place of a fruitful encounters, but often also a place of big tensions between religions.

Today my country is very similar to the context of Palestine at the time of Jesus, as well as to many countries of the Islamic world – a postcolonial society of big social injustices, with a lot of divisions among the people, nationalism, closed religious communities, etc. It is a society in which the democratic and civic values from the West are implemented too slowly, because these values are more imitated than really advocated. As if we are in a big game of chess in which the other side – the Western world – is always “two moves ahead” in the development, we are constantly late. It is a country between the East and West, which is both East and West, but also neither of them. It is a bridge between East and West, the bridge on which many conquerors stepped on, a bridge which was often destroyed, and from which the walls of division were made.

We know that one’s faith is always incarnated in a certain context. So what does it mean to testify Christianity in the above described context? It means to be a bridge builder and keeper. Religion alone is the bridge between God and men, and a bridge between humans. In catholic tradition one of the most important terms is one of the priest-pontifex. Traditionally this term is confined to institutional priesthood, i.e., practically, theologians which live in celibacy, but if we pay attention to the teachings of the New Testament, then it is more appropriate to speak about the universal priesthood, i.e. about the common task of bridge building. The bridge, the dialogue, enables the fruitful exchange between the connected sides. Often around the bridge arises one new, unique entity and togetherness. Two sides of the bridge are defining each other’s identity. Maybe I’ll surprise you now if I try to deepen this term of pontifex with one inspiring narrative from Islamic tradition, very is often told among the Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some claim that this story has parallels with Middle East rabbi stories and early Christian narratives:

“Once upon a time there were two brothers who got into a fight so heavily that they started to hate each other. Each of them went to live on different side of one river. But that wasn’t enough. They were so angry that they couldn’t look at each other anymore. Therefore they called a mason and each of them asked him to build a wall on his side of the river, so that his brother couldn’t see him anymore. But when they left for work, the mason took the stones and built a bridge across the river. In the evening the brothers came back from work and they saw a bridge. Both of them thought that the other brother ordered the construction of a bridge because he wanted to make peace. They ran to each other and made peace in the middle of the bridge. Later, during the evening meal, they asked the mason: ‘Stay with us!’ But he said: ‘I have to go. There are more bridges to be built, and there are more brothers to be reconciled!’”

The impulse for dialogue and bridge building among people of other cultures and religions I also find in the universal message of Christianity, the message which addresses all human beings. The love of God for the human beings doesn’t have any borders. Jesus testified to this borderless love, by socializing with the marginalized, outcasts, and public enemies.

A big obstacle to the relationship with other cultures and religions is when the object of our beliefs is less God’s message and more the very religion or religious institution, or even nation, tradition, politics, which are only the contextual frame of the religion we belong to. All these things, including religion, are made because of man, and not vice versa. If we forget the universality of God’s message and love, than we invent various borders to salvation and love, which is not Christ-like. Laying borders is a sign of fear and mistrust.

The fear, mistrust, as well as the lack of freedom to which they lead, are the biggest obstacles to any dialogue. The fanaticism and misuse of religion are frequently just a sign of deeper social and psychological disruptions in the society. If a man’s existence is endangered, if the fear of hunger, death and constant insecurity is too big, then it’s very hard for one to follow any beliefs or convictions, and it’s easy to manipulate her/him. Therefore a believer should actively plead for spreading of all sorts of freedoms, so that one can freely and truly choose the faith. One BaH[1] writer writes: “Hell, if it exists, is not fire filled with souls, but souls filled with fear.”

How does your faith inform your sense of responsibility in the global community?

I explained how Christianity challenges me to be open, not to put borders to dialogue and love of God, to build bridges and togetherness. That means that our responsibility in a global community should go in the direction of constant spreading of freedoms, and the best method for reaching this goal is the networking of people, firstly the networking of healthy and positive strengths within our own religious or societal community, then regional and global networking, i.e. learning and sharing experiences, thoughts, ideas, projects, as opposed to building of Babel towers of strict obedience, relentless pyramidal hierarchy, and ghetto-isolationistic self-sufficient conscience. Religion has to help build healthy, open democratic civic societies. Democracy consists not only of laws and institutions – if we limit democracy only to that, then it becomes more burden than help – it supposes various processes of spreading human freedoms and an open and free spirit in the society. (“The spirit blows wherever it wants to!”).

These beliefs and convictions I try to express through the work in the “Interreligious Council of BaH”. This institution was born in 1997, after a bloody war in my country, as an association of representatives of four traditional confessions in BaH (Islamic, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish), as a sign of mutual efforts to reconcile and transform our post-conflict society. The initial document of IRC, the “Statement of Shared Moral Commitment” was the first document of its kind in the Balkans. The IRC is a bridge between religious communities and civil society. Their work is focused on the five programmatic areas: legal, media, education, women’s and youth workgroup. I worked mainly with the youth workgroup “All Together”.

The most interesting project I worked on is “Constructing civil society through interreligious dialogue”. It is the project of establishing “Boards for interreligious cooperation” throughout the country. Since 2010, twelve boards have been founded and strengthened. IRC in BaH tries to capacitate the boards for independent work and implementation of projects of common interest in smaller local communities. Each board consists of three groups: religious leaders and men, women, youth. Among the projects successfully implemented in the chapters, there are many excursions, seminars, cultural exhibitions, social and ecological care projects, joint visits to religious sites etc. So we try to build a network of interreligious dialogue, which consists of many smaller communities in BaH, to help them to envision and lead their own projects, to recognize their own interest, and to monitor their work. The goal is to transform our transitional society through interreligious dialogue. The goal is to transfer dialogue to as many young people as we can, and to permanently connect these young people. The goal is to sow a field of king-cups, and then, when the wind blows – and the wind blows wherever it wants to – their seeds will be scattered throughout many fields of the world.


[1] Bosnia and Herzegovina


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