From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
BALKAN CHURCH LEADERS SEEK RECONCILIATION, CREDIBILITY
05 May 1996 09:00:12
95316 BALKAN CHURCH LEADERS SEEK RECONCILIATION, CREDIBILITY
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
"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
"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 PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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