Theorizing Modernities article

Bridging Ethnoreligious Divides in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Choosing Peace Together through Interreligious Action for Conflict Transformation

Choosing Peace Together (CPT) was a CRS-run program in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) that operated from 2010 to 2014 in partnership with Caritas of the Bishops’ Conference of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Two decades after the formal conclusion of the war, CPT demonstrates the constructive role of inter-religious action in responding to enduring deep ethnoreligious divisions in post-war contexts of trauma and in working intently on substantial reconciliation. In distinction from the apparent secularity of land conflicts in Mindanao, BiH’s deep ethnic divisions overlap with religious identities (Christian Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks), and thus a superficial analysis posits religion as a driver of conflict. In both cases, however, religion intersects in complex and dynamic ways with the history of violence, the construction of rigid and exclusionary identity boundaries, and the potential for conflict transformation. The mono-cultural/ethnic/religious nation is an outcome of modern nation-making, in spite of romantic claims of primordial nationalistic authenticity. The fact that exclusivist ethnoreligious warrants and the war in BiH are very recent historical developments counters potential narratives that suggest ancient hatreds and inevitable separationist impulses as the conflict’s primary causes.

In post-war BiH, ethnic divisions still loom strongly, especially in associations of war victims, which tend to harbor hostile views of ethnic others. Counting around 150,000 members, these associations are typically mono-ethnic, and exert broad and substantial informal influence on public opinion. Likewise, in intergenerational terms, and due to strict ethnic segregation of schooling and curriculum, youth born after the war’s conclusion are exposed to routine dehumanizing of other communities by parents, educators, and media while harboring no memories of inter-communal interactions and peaceful cohabitation. Such youth, Nell Bolton and Edita Colo Zahirovic explain in their overview of the CRS/BiH CPT program, are even more predisposed to resist reconciliation efforts than their parents, fearing that reconciliation means accepting the suffering their parents endured during the war. CPT, consequently, was designed as a three-part psychosocial training on communication, trauma, and forgiveness, followed by “Speaking Out” events where war survivors publicly share their stories. When implemented with youth, CPT also included interactive performances using the approach of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, a three-week Peer Peace Education Camp, and an online Small School of Peacebuilding. CPT’s theory of change posited that if potential spoilers (in this case, war victims and youth) were to embrace reconciliatory efforts, and if influential organizations demonstrated support of such efforts, then reconciliatory attitudes would spread to organization members and to broader societal circles. Survey data produced by CPT in BiH indeed suggest that the targeted workshops strengthened inter-communal interaction and mutual understanding, with 84% of participants reporting willingness to consider the possibility of forgiveness. 84 “Speaking Out” events subsequently facilitated interethnic panels of war survivors, reaching over 3,500 audience members who, when surveyed, reported that such events contributed to attitudinal change toward other ethnicities (in one location over 80% reported such a change).

A youth peace camp

CPT’s focus on open discussion of painful memories facilitated transformative experiences on personal and inter-personal levels. However, in some instances, “Speaking Out” caused anxiety and re-victimization, highlighting enduring needs for psychosocial support. Another shortcoming was the inability to offer pathways from personal and inter-personal (horizontal) transformations to (vertical) policy-level structural change as in the Binding, Bonding, and Bridging program in Mindanao, when municipal authorities became stakeholders in inter-communal land dispute management. CPT also overlooked providing participants with tools and resources for “re-entry” into communities where rigid ethnic other-ing still persists, as well as the peacebuilding potential of (but also obstacles for) intentionally involving women in the male-dominated space of discussions of wartime memories.

Despite all these shortcomings, CPT, by Bolton and Zahirovic’s account, effectively illustrates the binding, bonding, and bridging approach formalized later for the context of the conflict in Mindanao. This 3B method focuses on three sets of activities: binding activities focus on self-transformation (including through trauma healing processes); bonding activities direct attention to intra-group relation-building as constituting a necessary stage for inter-group dialogue and collaboration, which represent the third bridgingtype of activities. According to Bolton and Zahirovic, CPT demonstrated the role of trauma healing and self-transformation in the 3B method in particular as mechanisms for inter-ethnoreligious recognition.

Focusing on youth and other potential spoilers as loci of reconciliation through trauma healing and “counter-messaging” suggests that hermeneutical work that draws upon religio-cultural and historical literacy is a necessary, if less attended to, dimension of the assessment of CPT in BiH as a peacebuilding mechanism. Indeed, the case study of CPT illuminates the distinct ways in which the 3B approach could operate in transforming narratives, perceptions of the “other,” and societal reconciliation through inter-ethnoreligious engagement and truth-telling. Like in Mindanao where religious and indigenous leaders in the barangays were key to implementing 3B, CPT too highlights the potential role of religious actors in promoting such projects for social cohesion. By “counter-messaging,” I mean the ways in which re-interpretive work counters the various levels at which exclusionary narratives and other-ing unfold in the media and in school curricula.

While, in Mindanao, the effectiveness of the 3B program was measured in terms of capacity to mediate land conflicts among Christians, Muslims, and other indigenous people, in BiH the effectiveness of CPT was measured by tracking attitudinal shifts and greater recognition of the other’s authentic narratives among Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. To reach such transformative spaces, it is necessary to engage more deeply with questions of how stereotyping of other ethnoreligious communities can be combated through counter-messaging (including through transgressive theatre) and challenging historiographical accounts in text books. The role of religion, therefore, is more interpretive than instrumental as in the case of Mindanao, where traditional religious leaders were identified for the communal traction they already possessed and which was enhanced through inter- and intra-religious work as well as training in more “secular” conflict resolution skills.  By contrast, inter-ethnoreligious action in BiH–and especially action that could offer pathways to reconciliation and desegregation of ethnoreligious spheres–requires re-narrating religion’s intersections with national historiographies and their reproduction in media and popular artistic expressions. Hence, such an analysis calls for more research on how religious literacy can participate in peace media, art, youth engagement, and curricula development pertaining to efforts for re-narration and cultivation of empathy and inclusive democratic praxis.


Photo credit: Velija Hasanbegovic for CRS

Atalia Omer
 Atalia Omer is Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Politics (2008) from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research focuses on Israel/Palestine; religion, violence, and peacebuilding; as well as theories and methods in the study of religion. Omer was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2017, resulting in Decolonizing Religion and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2023). Among other publications, Omer is the author of When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians (University of Chicago Press, 2019). She is also a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2015).