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The hard lessons of Srebrenica

06 July 2018

Religious groups must strengthen their resolve to combat hatred, argues David Urquhart


A woman mourns a loved one, who was identified as a victim of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, last year

A woman mourns a loved one, who was identified as a victim of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, last year

EARLY in May, I was invited to visit Bosnia as a guest of the charity Remembering Srebrenica (News, 18 May). It has a vision to rid society of hatred by reminding people of the power of propaganda, manipulation, and divisive nationalism, while learning lessons from genocide survivors and equipping community champions who pledge to stand up to intolerance of any kind.

During the three-day visit, I witnessed beauty and pain in Bosnia-Herzegovina which have left an indelible mark. I saw a country of great potential locked in economic stagnancy caused by political complexity. I could sense the grief of people who mourned for the country they knew before the war — a country that is no longer fighting, but remains far from peace. I was chilled by the legacy of state militarism and nationalism that spiralled out of control, and turned a neighbour into a brutal enemy.

I saw how Sarajevo was a city where faith communities co-existed contentedly. I heard stories of deep friendships that crossed religious divides that suddenly became chasms. I witnessed the possibility of neighbour murdering neighbour, villages ravaged by hatred, and, finally, the ultimate consequence of dehumanisation: the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica.

In just three days, in and around Srebrenica, more than 8000 lives were brutally destroyed — each and every one of them a person created in the image of God, each one capable of loving and being loved, each one full of human potential.

ONE of the most shocking aspects of this genocide, for me, is that Christianity was used to support the actions of the perpetrators. It is said that the Bosnian Serb General, Ratko Mladic, waited until 11 July to violate Srebrenica because he wanted to carry out his atrocity on the feast of St Benedict — to make the violence a sacred act, in the name of a saint who stood for peace, prayer, hospitality, and brotherhood.

Faith communities must resist this kind of blasphemy. I want to see communities that can discern the difference between good and evil, lies and truth, deception and wisdom, courage and aggression; and who learn and practise how to stand up against hatred and any kind of prejudice, and live in solidarity with any group of people who are under threat, excluded, and oppressed.

In Birmingham, we are keen to bring people of different faiths together, not only for tea and samosas, but to have difficult conversations about the issues that trouble us and have the potential to divide. We encourage hospitality around each other’s festivals and seek to build close, trusting relationships, so that fears and joys, sorrows and dreams, are shared across religious and ethnic divides. Through study days, seminars, and the work of skilled practitioners, we aim to equip religious leaders to develop skills and understanding for their ministry in a multi-faith context.

In my brief visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina, I saw not only the harm that humanity can cause when it succumbs to hatred, but also the strength of human beings who choose not to hate, despite their pain and loss.

I saw it in the efforts of the Mufti of Sarajevo, who reached out to people of different faiths and helped young theologians build relationships across divides. His patient work within his own community and across the faith communities was a shining example of godly and faithful living.

Our brief meeting with two of the Mothers of Srebrenica, whose husbands and sons were killed during the genocide, conveyed, with very few words, the resilience of the human soul, the strength of a heart that keeps on loving, and the strange but wonderful capacity for hope in a situation of devastating tragedy.

diocese of birminghamThe Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Revd David Urquart, reads names at the Srebrenica Memorial site, Sarajevo, in May

MY CHRISTIAN faith has drawn me to believe that love is stronger than hatred, that hope is stronger than death, that faith is stronger than despair. This is the revelation of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a story that I heard and witnessed on my visit to Srebrenica.

A story of hope and love is the story that we must tell as people of different faiths, ethnicities, and backgrounds. We must listen and we must speak, and we must remind one another that any denial of the full humanity of the other must not be left unchallenged. The gospel of Jesus Christ calls me to love both my neighbour and my enemy.

Different faiths contain similar exhortations. Together, we must stand ready to weed out hatred from our own hearts, our homes, our city, our country, our continent, and our world. United by love, we must find ways to resist evil wherever it comes from, and to be on our guard against political systems that are greedy for power and have lost their human values.

As a new wave of populism sweeps the West, and divisive nationalism once again rears its head, religious leaders must ensure that they are forming people who refuse to conform or watch idly, but instead know how to stand with their neighbour, how to resist manipulation, and how to protest powerfully in the face of hatred.

The West Balkans Summit that meets in London on Tuesday may take the next steps of hopeful negotiation. With renewed responsibility from all the faiths and none for the practice of fearless compassion, we can pray for an outcome of peaceful stability.

The Rt Revd David Urquhart is the Bishop of Birmingham.


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