From the Worldwide Faith News archives


Date 05 May 1996 09:00:12


                          by Alexa Smith 
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Mired in the complexities of centuries-old ethnic, 
religious, linguistic and economic rivalries, pronouncements and actions of 
church leaders in the Balkans' two largest religious communions are being 
met with increasing skepticism abroad. 
     Critics say statements described as pastoral by both the Roman 
Catholic Church in Croatia and the Serbian Orthodox Church often sound more 
like apologetics for people within their own communions who commit 
     "The problem is, . . . when a community is feeling particularly 
assailed, sees itself as particularly at risk, [it] has fallen back into 
the narrowest kinds of self-serving affirmations," says the Rev. Duane Epps 
of the Europe Office of the World Council of Churches in Geneva -- and he 
says Muslim leaders are caught in the same dilemma.  "At its best, each 
community has issued statements of broad concern for all caught in the 
tragedy ... and condemned atrocities against the other, condemned acts done 
in the name of religion -- for instance, destroying places of worship. 
     "At best," Epps told the Presbyterian News Service, "all have given a 
witness of the broad perspectives of, in the Christian case, the gospel, 
and in the Muslim case, the Koran." 
     But theological onlookers in the United States who have ties to the 
two large communions argue many courageous acts have been done by 
individuals and by churches in the name of faith in the midst of the 
Balkans conflagration.  But they also admit it is simpler to care for those 
broken by the now seemingly endless brutality than actually to hold 
accountable those who do violence -- especially when so many people on all 
sides consider themselves victims of this war. 
     But victims, too, critics say, do evil, even if they are intending to 
resist it.  And victims, too, may become swept up in a cycle of retribution 
that resolves nothing and only perpetuates more pain. 
     "Hatred is not the fundamental feeling.  The fundamental feeling is 
fear," says Father Rastko Trubhovich of St. Stephen Serbian Orthodox Church 
in Lackawanna, N.Y., and the Serbian Orthodox representative to the 
National Council of Churches.  "We assume fear to be innocent ... but out 
of fear people do terrible things.  And they can be extremely evil. ... 
     "Pastors feel a tremendous amount of responsibility for the people, 
especially in terms of suffering. ... [They understand themselves to be] 
protectors of the people," he said, stressing that no eastern European 
family was exempted from horrible suffering in World War II, and memories 
of atrocities that went unpunished behind the Iron Curtain at the war's end 
are still fresh and raw. 
     Foreign policy expert Gerard F. Powers of the U.S. Conference of 
Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., says nationalist extremists 
deliberately targeted churches and mosques for destruction early in the war 
to feed people's fears and suspicions, creating the lie that this largely 
political drama has religious roots  -- despite the fact that Catholics, 
Orthodox and Muslims have lived together for 50 years. 
     "This is not a religious conflict," says Powers, who adds that getting 
out of the cycle of violence is going to require more religion, not less. 
He argues church leaders do not necessarily have to come to political 
agreement on what went wrong in the Balkans, but there can be theological 
consensus on some very fundamental thinking: 
       condemning extremists on all sides for promoting idolatry of the 
state, which is blasphemy 
       insisting that ethnic hatred is wrong and that living within the 
richness of God's creation is basic to the Christian message 
       teaching the very hard lesson that vengeance is also wrong, even for 
legitimate victims. 
     "It's not true that all religious groups in the region reacted in 
exactly the same way," Powers told the Presbyterian News Service.  At least 
this time, he says, it is clear that "one side" (Serbs) are responsible for 
the vast majority of abuses.  "But there is a tendency to see clearly the 
sins committed against your own people and see dimly the sins [your own 
people] are committing." 
     While Croatia's Catholic leaders and Serbia's Orthodox patriarch have 
both condemned those who kill in the name of religion and have expressed 
outrage and horror over atrocities, conversations break down over 
specifics.  Each church still accuses the other of historical revisionism 
about atrocities committed in World War II, when the Croatians and the 
Serbs found themselves on opposite sides of the conflict -- and its 
atrocities -- in eastern Europe. 
     Fuller Theological Seminary theologian Miroslav Volf says a creative 
act is what is needed to break this action-reaction cycle and that for 
Christians such action has to be self-giving. 
     "It takes a creative act to say, 'I am not going to act reactively, 
but creatively,'" Volf, who is a native of Croatia and a Protestant, told 
the Presbyterian News Service.  "The easiest thing to do is get sucked into 
an action-reaction cycle ... a spiral that pulls one into the mire of 
     And evil, he says, only engenders more evil -- whether it is committed 
by perpetrators or by their victims, an idea he develops in Friendship 
Press's new book, "Remembering the Future:  The Challenge of the Churches 
in Europe." 
     "A Christian ethic transcends autonomistic chains of reactions," says 
Volf, drawing on the life and death of Jesus Christ as a model.  "The cross 
was the ultimate paradigm for refusal to be sucked into autonomism.  It's 
similar with the Sermon on the Mount: If someone strikes your cheek, turn 
the other. That," says Volf, "is creative.  That's new. 
     "What's predictable is to do what is done to you." 
     What critics argue has been predictable up until now are actions of 
both Orthodox and Catholic church leaders that make them easy targets for 
accusations of supporting the nationalist agendas of both countries' 
extremists.  A Croatian cardinal visited the Krajina region immediately 
after the Croatian conquest there, and Orthodox officials have been 
photographed with military leaders. 
     Epps said that while the WCC has sharply raised moral concerns for 
church leaders in the Balkans behind the scenes, the organization 
recognizes it has lost some credibility for what looks like an 
unwillingness to engage the moral dilemmas publicly.  He said the WCC's 
struggle has been finding a way to be critical without cutting off dialogue 
and undermining ecumenical relationships by feeding the old 
fear-and-suspicion cycle so prevalent now in life in the former Yugoslavia.  
     Many local priests, according to Epps, have expressed dissent from 
political nationalism and from perceived church alignment with those views. 
"That is the voice we'd like to strengthen," he said. 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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