SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Two members of Eastern Mennonite Missions’ Christian/Muslim Relations Team visited Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to present three forums focusing on interfaith relationships and the spirituality of peacemaking.
David Shenk and Andres Prins’ May 4–10, 2017 visit was the fulfillment of a request made four years ago after Shenk did a two-day forum for Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim leadership in Sarajevo. Those unprecedented seminars were well received, and one of the organizers, Imam Ifet Mustafič, now Head of Interreligious Relations of the Office of Raisu-L-Ulama of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, made an immediate request for another visit.
The latest visit was organized and arranged by Pastor Tomislav Dobutovič of the Kršćanska Baptistička Crkva (the Christian Baptist Church of Sarajevo), where the forums took place.
The first seminar was on peacemaking and the importance of dialogue. It was attended by religious leaders including Muslim and Catholic representatives. Shenk said that one of the disappointments of their time in Sarajevo was that permission to have the forums in an Islamic University was withdrawn. “Consequently, the forums were shifted away from the university to the Baptist center,” Shenk said. “In the current environment, interfaith conversation is almost taboo.”
The second seminar, focused on forgiveness, was geared more towards laypeople. Shenk noted that Sarajevo suffered a four-year-long siege between 1992 and 1996, when “Muslim” and “Christian” militia rained terror upon the city. “Probably every resident of Sarajevo lost a loved one or friend during the war,” Shenk said. “The war made a deeper division in society.”
“There is a very fractured mosaic of religious identities in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Prins said. “There is a divide between Bosnian Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. We were grateful for the open door to bear witness to Jesus and His peace.”
The third seminar was geared towards Christians and provided information on Islam and relationship building. “We discussed what it means to be faithful witnesses in a multi-religious environment,” Shenk explained. The seminar told stories of Christians and Muslims in dynamic engagement with one another. The focus was especially on obstacles and opportunities in cultivating peace-building relationships. “‘What difference does Jesus make?’ That question was the energizing center of the forum,” Shenk said.
Between the second and third forums, Shenk spoke at the Baptist church in Sarajevo while Prins preached at an emerging church in the city. Shenk and Prins also traveled to see two memorials to those killed due to ethnic violence. In Srebrenica, they visited the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial, a remembrance to the 1995 genocide of mostly Bosniaks and some Croats. They also paid their respects at a memorial in Trnovo, commemorating the death of Bosnian Serbs.
Shenk met with Muhamed Fazlovič, a professor who teaches Muslim studies at the University of Sarajevo. Fazlovič studied Catholicism at a university in the Vatican. Shenk was surprised to learn from him that many Muslims believe that all expressions of the Christian Church were made up of movements tied to armies and violence. He was intrigued by the longstanding Anabaptist commitment to peace and reconciliation.
“Professor Fazlovič would like to have a public forum to share the story of Anabaptists who did not kill Muslims and had a stance widely different than most other Christians,” Shenk said. “I hope this happens.”
Shenk first visited Sarajevo in 1979 as EMM’s director of international ministries, when the vision for an evangelical church presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina was still emerging and missionaries were just starting outreach there. At that time, there were no evangelical fellowships present in the city.
“Imagine my joy,” he said, after visiting thriving evangelical churches there 38 years later.