Attacks on Places of Worship in the Balkans

Attacks on Places of Worship in the Balkans

Hon.
Christopher H. Smith
United States
House of Representatives
107th Congress Congress
First Session Session
Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Mr. Speaker, news reports from Bosnia and Kosovo earlier this month give reason to despair. First, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, about 30 people were injured and property was damaged during riots in the "Republika Srpska'' cities of Trebinje on May 5 and Banja Luka on May 7. Islamic leaders, Bosnian officials and representatives of the international community were attacked during ceremonies to lay the first stones of mosques being rebuilt where mosques destroyed by Serb militants in 1993 once stood.

We remember well, hundreds of mosques were destroyed during the war as part of the genocidal campaign of ethnic cleansing. The apparent purpose was to erase the cultural vestiges of the Bosniac population which was terrorized and forced to flee. It was not uncommon for the local ethnic Serbs subsequently to deny a mosque had ever existed, once the rubble had been cleared away. The famous Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka built in 1583 was blown to bits on May 7, 1993. The ceremony exactly eight years later was the culmination of persistent efforts, including the Helsinki Commission which I co-chair, to get Republika Srpska leaders to permit the reconstruction of destroyed mosques, which they finally did this year.

The riots last week demonstrate the continued intolerance in the region. Moreover, while Bosnian Serb officials have officially condemned the incidents, there are indications that both the Trebinje and Banja Luka events were orchestrated and perhaps linked. In Trebinje, the police force seemed simply to be not adequate. In Banja Luka, though, some believe that the police forces may have been involved in plans to disrupt the ceremonies. Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader who has been indicted for genocide but remains at large, is alleged to have been responsible. Meanwhile, in Kosovo on May 6, local Albanians threw stones breaking windows and the doors of the Serbian Orthodox Church of St. Dimitrije in the village of Susica. Damage was done inside, and some cash offering was stolen. This was only the most recent in a wave of attack since the end of the conflict in Kosovo in 1999 in which about one hundred Orthodox churches have been damaged or destroyed. Many of these incidents have been documented by Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije in testimony before the Helsinki Commission.

Mr. Speaker, there are signs that in Kosovo, too, these attacks are not spontaneous acts of intolerance. Unfortunately, it seems that an environment has been created in which such acts of violence are not discouraged, let alone thwarted. Mr. Speaker, attacks on places of worship are reprehensible, no matter what the faith, no matter what the ethnicity of the worshipers. These sites are sacred to believers, and important as cultural symbols even to many who are not. Orchestrated or spontaneous, these attacks must be stopped. The international presence, including peacekeeping forces, local law enforcement, political leaders, and religious figures across faiths must be part of the solution, not the problem.

I was particularly disappointed with the response of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who, while criticizing those who engaged in violence, sought to place some of the blame on those working to rebuild the mosques in Republika Srpska. He was quoted as saying that some churches and mosques should not be rebuilt because they might provoke such incidents. Blaming the victim, sadly, has become a norm in the minds of too many who could and should, instead, be champions of justice. In conclusion, Mr. Speaker, let us remember that freedom of thought, religion and belief is a fundamental human right, and attacks on religious sites are attacks on that right, attacks that must be wholeheartedly condemned and hopefully prevented from happening again.

 

Relevant countries: 
Leadership: 
  • Related content
  • Related content
Filter Topics Open Close
  • The Meaning of Yeltsin's Veto of Russia's Law on Religion

    This briefing provided an analysis of the events surrounding President Yeltsin's veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia which would have effectively banned the activities of certain religious minority groups including Protestants and Catholics. The bill passed emphatically in both houses of the Russian Parliament, mounting great domestic pressure on the President to approve it. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute credits the blocking of the bill to international pressure from both the US and the EU, which were vocal in their opposition. Congress sent several letters to Mr. Yeltsin, including one which was signed by 160 senators and members of the House of Representatives. The discussion in the question and answer period centered around more concrete measures taken by the US Congress to persuade Yeltsin to veto the bill, including economic incentives tied to foreign aid and trade.

  • Russia’s Religion Law

    This briefing addressed Congressional concerns about a draft law regarding religion that was making its way through the Duma. Given that this draft was vetoed by President Yeltsin, the Commission took special care to highlight this act standing for religious freedom and the efforts that were made to respect and adhere to the Russia’s international commitments. Larry Uzzell of the Keston Institute provided an analysis of the events surround President Yeltsin’s recent veto of the proposed law on religious organizations in Russia. The roles of domestic and international influences in this resulting veto were each evaluated. Trends of religious freedom in Russia were also examined in the context of how much progress the defeat of this law would actually make.

  • Report on Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement

    The Commission held a series of three public hearings on “Human Rights and the Process of NATO Enlargement” in anticipation of the summit of Heads of State and Governments of Member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to be held in Madrid, Spain, on July 8 and 9, 1997. The emergence of new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and the demise of the Warsaw Pact created a security vacuum in the territory between the current eastern frontier of NATO and the Russian border. The first attempt to address the new security realities in the region occurred at the end of 1991 with the establishment of NATO’s North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) as a forum for the evolution of a new relationship based on constructive dialogue and cooperation. In early 1994, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) was launched with the aim of providing a practical program to transform the relationship between NATO and states participating in PfP, moving beyond dialogue and cooperation to forge a genuine security partnership. (All 27 states of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) are OSCE participating States.) Simultaneously, NATO began to consider the possibility of enlarging the Alliance. The result was the 1995 Study on NATO Enlargement which addressed practical steps and requirements candidates for membership would have to satisfy. In December 1996, NATO foreign ministers called for a NATO summit at which one or more countries that wanted to join NATO would be invited to begin accession negotiations. The U.S. Congress was instrumental in stimulating the debate through several legislative initiatives. The NATO Participation Act of 1994 (PL 103-447) provided a reasonable framework for addressing concerns about NATO enlargement, consistent with U.S. interests in ensuring stability in Europe. The law lists a variety of criteria, such as respect for democratic principles and human rights enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act, against which to evaluate the suitability of prospective candidates for NATO membership. The Act stipulates that participants in the PfP should be invited to become full NATO members if they... “remain committed to protecting the rights of all their citizens....” Under section 203, a program of assistance was established to provide designated emerging democracies with the tools necessary to facilitate their transition to full NATO membership. The NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act of 1996 (PL 104-208) included an unqualified statement that the protection and promotion of fundamental freedoms and human rights are integral aspects of genuine security. The law also makes clear that the human rights records of emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe interested in joining NATO should be evaluated in light of the obligations and commitments of these countries under the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Helsinki Final Act.  

  • Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE)

    This briefing focused on the topics of European security and NATO enlargement, specifically in terms of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Elements of the treaty that remained especially important, including the goal of avoiding destabilizing concentrations of forces in Europe and the goal of creating greater transparency and promoting information exchange among governments in Europe, were discussed. Witnesses testifying at this briefing spoke to the need for amendments and changes to the CFE, but maintained the relevance of the treaty to international security. Different strategies for making these changes related to Russian pressure and NATO involvement were presented. 

  • Religious Freedom in Russia

    Helsinki Commission Staff Advisor John Finerty presented the question of the quality and depth of religious freedom in Russia currently, and allowed for an evaluation of the progress, or lack thereof, of religious liberty following the fall of the Soviet Union. Larry Uzzell, the Moscow representative of the Keston Institute of England, one of the oldest organizations specializing in religious life and religious freedom in Communist and former Communist countries, was asked to address the issue of religious freedom in Russia and had several key points to say on the matter. In his testimony, Mr. Uzzell emphasizes discrimination in the practice of registration in giving provincial governments the power to regulate all aspects of religious life, which is detrimental to religious liberty, and asserts that the prospects of religious freedom in Russia have suffered a setback in recent years.

  • Brcko and the Future of Bosnia

    The briefing was introduced by Robert Hand, policy advisor at the Commission , who addressed the status of Brcko. Both a city and a district in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina along the Sava River, Brcko borders on the Slavonian region of Croation. Prior to the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, Brcko had a mixed population, but this was destroyed by the ethnic cleansing.  Hand then discussed the strategic importance of Brcko, often called the Posavina Corridor, as it serves as a corridor by which the Serb-held region of western Bosnia is linked to Serbia and to eastern Bosnia. Witnesses - Frank McCloskey, Special Counsel to the Bosnian Federation; Susan Woodward, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, the Brookings Institution; Soren Jessen Petersen, Former UNHCR Special Envoy for the Former Yugoslavia; and Carol Schlitt, Attorney, National Defense University - highlighted the importance of Brcko, which was made evident by the fact that its status could not be agreed upon at the Dayton negotiations. This diverse group of experts concluded by commenting on the future of the region, and on Bosnia-Herzegovina in general.

  • U.S. Statements on the Human Dimension, 1996 OSCE Vienna Review Conference and Lisbon Summit

    This compendium of statements illustrates the U.S. perspective that one of the key and distinguishing features of the OSCE is the interlocking framework of critical, politically binding commitments which provide a common set of principles to which all participating States can aspire. The OSCE draws its real strength and practical flexibility from participating states' commitments to the values of the original Helsinki Act, rather than from a legalized, treaty-based institutional structure. A fundamental strength of the OSCE is the review process, which provides a regular opportunity to assess a participating states' efforts to further the realization of the Helsinki Accords within its own borders, and in its relations with other OSCE states. The OSCE is increasingly a pillar of European security. By facilitating honest implementation review the OSCE can strengthen security links based on common values.

  • Civil Implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia

    Robert Hand, staff advisor at the Commission, led the discussion as part of a series of briefings on the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This briefing focused on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s September elections, for which the Commission sent six observers. Hand was joined by Ambassador Robert Frowick, who was part of the Provisional Election Commission that organized the September elections. Ambassador Frowick spoke of the new institutions and their newly elected officials, but also addressed the internal divisions and outside pressures he had to combat when organizing the elections.

  • Serbia and Montenegro: The Prospects for Change

    A staff delegation of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (Helsinki Commission) traveled to Serbia and Montenegro for one week in April 1996 to assess the situation in these republics in light of changes in the region resulting from the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and the end of the conflict in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to meetings in the Federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, and the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the delegation traveled to Vojvodina, Kosovo and the Sandzak, where large non-Serb/Montenegrin populations reside. A seminar on refugees in the former Yugoslavia, held in Kotor, Montenegro, was also attended. The delegation met with federal, republic and regional officials, as well as representatives of independent media, opposition political parties, and human rights or humanitarian groups in each location. Upon the conclusion of their visit, the staff reported the delegation's findings and recommendations to the countries belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and gave a public briefing immediately upon its return to Washington. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been viewed as largely responsible for the conflict associated with former Yugoslavia's demise, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and for un- democratic and ethnically intolerant conditions within Serbia itself. Montenegro, having some cultural af- finities with Serbia but also a desire for distinctness, is viewed as Serbia's reluctant accomplice, especially when the two proclaimed a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. The new, or "rump," Yugoslavia has largely been isolated by the international community as far as bilateral relations and multilateral activity. After almost four years of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995 changed the regional environment in southcentral Europe significantly. Not only did the Agreement propose a settlement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is now being implemented, but it also created a more positive regional environment in which other problems plaguing the region might be resolved. Dayton could not have been achieved without the international community again working with the Serbian regime.

  • Bosnian Elections III: Representatives of Bosnian Political Parties

    Robert Hand led the discussion on the upcoming Bosnian elections, which were scheduled for mid-September later that year.  He was joined by representatives of political parties from Bosnia-Herzegovina, a rather diverse group of individuals - some of them represented parties in powers and others that are not and from various ethnic constituencies. The witnesses - Ljilana Bubic of the Republican Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; Adnan Jahic, President of the Party for Democratic Action in Tuzla; Hasib Salkic, Secretary General of the Liberal Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; Zdenko Kubicek of the Executive Board of the Croatian Party of Rights; Mirjana Malic of the Social Democratic Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Zoran Tomic of the Croatian Democratic Union - introduced their parties’ histories, issues, and goals. They then focused more specifically on how they see the Bosnian elections unfolding and their thoughts about having them in the upcoming fall.

  • Bosnia: Should the OSCE Certify Conditions Exist for Free and Fair Elections?

    The Helsinki Commission is focusing on what it considers one of the most important international events of this year, the elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Commission has held several briefings on this topic already with election experts from the United States, with members of the Provisional Election Commission from Bosnia, with representatives of political parties from that country, and most recently, with persons close to the situation in Banja Luka. Human rights organizations and others following the situation in Bosnia have warned that conditions for a free and fair election simply do not exist; and yet, the U.S. Government and some European governments have pressured the OSCE to certify nonetheless. A robust discussion on curbing rampant political gerrymandering and obstructions to free and fair elections will be underscored in the hearing.

  • Rebuilding Bosnia-Herzegovina: Strategies and the U.S. Role

    The Helsinki Commission addressed the status of the ongoing rehabilitation efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina following the conclusion of the war that took place between 1992 and 1995. Amidst lasting tensions, the Commission emphasized the need for reconciliation and for civilians to actively participate in this process. The primary witness, J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the Agency for International Development, emphasized several goals for moving forward in Bosnia-Herzegovina such as addressing the issue of displaced persons by repairing housing infrastructure, encouraging economic activity through international cooperation with the central bank, and initiating elections under free and fair conditions. 

  • Report: Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugolsavia, An Update

    In early 1996, with little fanfare, the U.N. Security Council quietly and quickly selected Canadian Judge Louise Arbour to succeed Justice Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The relative ease with which a replacement was chosen -- in contrast to the prolonged, relatively public, and embarrassing manner in which the Security Council members fought among themselves for nearly a year over the selection of the first prosecutor -- reflects the dramatically changed circumstances in which the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal now finds itself. At the time of Goldstone’s appointment in 1994, most observers of the Yugoslav conflict seemed to fall into one of two categories: those that thought war crimes trials should be held, but did not believe the Tribunal would ever indict anybody above the rank of private (let alone hold an actual trial), and those who believed that the mere discussion of war crimes trials undermined peace negotiations. Under Goldstone’s able stewardship, the Tribunal has developed a full complement of staff, including prosecuting attorneys and investigators; issued more than fifty indictments, including for the two highest ranking Bosnian-Serb political and military leaders and three members of the Yugoslav People’s Army; obtained custody of three men; and begun the Tribunal’s first trial. Goldstone has deftly managed a multitude of political crises, successfully traversed the treacherous waters of the U.N. bureaucracy, and, thus far, helped safeguard the legal integrity and credibility of the Tribunal. All of these factors, combined with the achievement of a tenuous peace agreement in Dayton in November 1995,2 now make the possibility of war crimes trials seem, to many, more real than ever before. This memorandum outlines the basic structure of the Tribunal and the most recent developments with respect to investigations and trials, cooperation by U.N. member states with the Tribunal, and funding.

  • Turkish Minority in Western Thrace

    This briefing presented an overview of the problems and the situation of the Turkish minority in Thrace, which had suffered from human rights abuses, including the deprivation of citizenship, denials of the right to buy land or houses, restriction of freedom of expression, movement, and religion, and the degrading treatment of ethnic Turks by Greek government officials. In spite of some reforms taken to improve this situation, many issues still remain, involving education, the expropriation of land, and religious discrimination. Witnesses providing testimony at this hearing – including Tozun Bahcheli, Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace; Van Coufoudakis, Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at Indiana University/Purdue; and Western Thrace residents Adem Bekiroglu and Irene Laganis – discussed the limitations established by the Greek government’s failure to acknowledge without restriction the existence of the Turkish minority. Issues such as arbitrary deprivation of citizenship, the election of muftis, job discrimination, and discrimination in providing public services were identified as obstacles faced by the Turkish minority.  

  • Mass Graves and Other Atrocities in Bosnia

    Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) and others discussed the atrocities committed against women, men, and children in the former Yugoslavian country of Bosnia. These atrocities exemplified Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the former Yugoslavia at large, as areas where internecine violence and strife seemed to be constant phenomena.

  • Religious Liberty: The State Church and Minority Faiths

    Samuel G. Wise, Director for International Policy at the US Helsinki Commission, presented the second briefing in a series focusing on religious liberty in the participating states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. This particular discussion was intended to evaluate the relationship between state churches or traditional religious and freedom of religion for minority faiths in the OSCE region through an analysis of the effects of certain historical legacies on individual states. Witnesses testifying at the briefing – including Father Kishkovsky, Ecumenical Officer of the Orthodox Church in America; Father George Papaioannou, Pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church; Gerard Powers, Foreign Policy Advisor for the U.S. Catholic Conference; Lauren Homer, Founder of Law and Liberty Trust; and Lee Boothby, Vice President of the Council on Religious Freedom – focused on the issue of minority and majority in society as it relates to religion and the potential for this issue to result in conflict. The historical origins of these tensions, especially in Eastern Europe, were particularly emphasized. 

  • Religious Liberty in the OSCE: Present and Future

    Speaking on behalf of Congressman Christopher H. Smith and Senator Alfonse M. D’Amato, chairman and co-chairman of the Helsinki Committee, the Committee’s Director for International Policy, Samuel G. Wise, addressed the improvements made by the countries of the OSCE in religious liberty since the demise of communism. Observed deficits in this particular subject were also evaluated, including acts of OSCE governments perpetrating religious intolerance and discrimination against people of faith by passing laws favoring certain religions, turning a blind eye to harassment, and establishing bureaucratic roadblocks to prevent religious minorities from practicing their faith. Each panelist – including Dr. Paul Marshall, Senior Fellow of Political Theory for the Institute for Christian Studies; Dr. Khalid Duran, Senior Fellow for the Institute for International Studies; and Micah Naftalin, National Director for the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews – spoke to the overall factors affecting religious freedom in the OSCE, including: respect for other freedoms such as freedom of speech and religion, ethno-cultural tensions, and the relevance of old prejudices. These ideas were presented in the context of moving towards a more comprehensive respect for religious freedom among OSCE member states in the future.

  • Banja Luka-Ethnic Cleansing Paradigm

    Samuel Wise, international policy director of the Commission, addressed the political setting in Bosnia before elections in 1995 and the possibility of having a free and fair environment, especially in regards to human rights like freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. The briefing focused on Banja Luka, the second largest city in Bosnia-Herzegovina that is located in the northwest. Since the beginning of the Bosnian conflict, the city was firmly in the hands of the Bosnian Serb rebels until the Dayton Accords placed the city in the Republika Srpska, the newly created Serbian republic. The city and the region surrounding it had a significant non-Serb population (Bosniacs or Muslim Slavs, Croats, Ukrainians, and ethnically mixed Yugoslavs), which was ethnically cleansed on behalf of the Serbian government. While some instances of ethnic cleansing there took the form of subtle measures, the most notorious concentration camps, including Omarska, were in the Banja Luka region. The witnesses – Catholic Bishop of Banja Luka  Franjo Komarica,  Obrad Kesic from the International Research and Exchanges Board, and Diane Paul, a nurse from Baltimore – discussed the city as a scene of apparent differences among Serb political activists with highly divergent points of view. They emphasized that Bosnia’s future hinged on whether moderates or radicals won in the elections in that region.

  • The Latest Crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina

    With Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) presiding, this hearing focused on the continuing ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavian country of Bosnia. This hearing was held with the events of the two weeks that preceded it in mind. More specifically, militants from Serbia had attacked UN outposts and, subsequently, had taken peacekeepers hostage.  In spite of the atrocities being committed against the Bosnian people, Rep. Smith stated that the international community viewed the conflict in Bosnia as more of a crisis than the Bosnians themselves. Unfortunately, though, as this hearing sought to address, the international community could have better responded to the crisis in the former Yugoslav country. As a witness, Dr. Haris Silajdzic was also in attendance.

  • Prosecuting War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia: an Update

    This memorandum is part of a continuing series of reports prepared by the staff of the Helsinki Commission on the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In the summer of 1991, Members of Congress and representatives of non-governmental organizations began to call for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal that would hold those responsible for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia personally and individually accountable for their actions. As atrocities mounted over that summer and information about concentration camps became public, these calls began to reverberate at on-going meetings of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) then being held in Prague, Vienna and Helsinki.

Pages