Seminarians Make Peace in the Balkans

What can Americans do to help with the peace in the battered countries that used to make up Yugoslavia? That question preoccupied Laurie Johnston, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, whose thoughts turned to the reconciliation work that Moral Re-Armament had done between Germans and French after World War II.

Why not bring together a group of theology students from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia at the Swiss Moral Re-Armament headquarters, in the Mountain House at Caux, high above Lake Geneva at Montreux, the site of those momentous meetings of another time? She brought her idea to Rodney Petersen, the director of the Boston Theological Institute, and me.


The three of us went to Switzerland last summer to sound out Moral Re-Armament on lending their premises and experience for this program. They gave us a warm welcome and encouraged us to go ahead.

All of us had seen enough of the Balkans to appreciate the problem of gaining a critical level of trust for any such program. We were delighted to find cooperation from all the religious traditions.

The Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle eventually put our proposal formally to the Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which gave its approval and helped us invite the participation of their students. Of the dozen men and women Serbian Orthodox students who eventually came to Caux, two were from Kosovo and two from the Republika Srpska region of Bosnia.

Catholic authorities also assisted. Fra Ivo Markovic, the remarkable Franciscan priest of Sarajevo who had been awarded the first Tanenbaum Peace Award for his work of reconciliation during and after the war, agreed to come and brought along two of his Franciscan seminarians. Msgr. Mato Zovkic, a close adviser to the cardinal in Sarajevo and a keen participant in Moral Re-Armament, came too, bringing seminarians with him. Other Catholic seminarians came from Croatia and Kosovo (including three Albanians), for a total of 12.

Friends in the Islamic faculty in Sarajevo and the Institute of Islamic Studies in Zenica helped us bring together another dozen Muslim students. Most came from Bosnia itself, but there were three Albanians from Kosovo and two Serbian Muslims from the Sandjak area in the south, adjoining Kosovo. Four Protestant participants came as well, two of them brothers from Kosovo who are co-pastors of a church in Pristina and two from the evangelical seminary at Osijek in Croatia.

We expected this conference would make enormous emotional and spiritual demands on its student participants. We aimed to help them understand one another’s experience of the wars. All had heard this talked about at home, often in the form of accusations against themselves and their own ethnic groups. All had a sense of themselves as victims. To acknowledge the others as also victims in need of mutual help in order to bring about healing among themselves would be heavy work. As a result, some seminary professors and confidants were also invited, so that the students could have recourse to them during the days in Caux. They also helped direct the extensive small-group meetings of religiously mixed participants that were the principal feature of the conference.

We asked David Steele, who was familiar to us from his work organizing reconciliation meetings in the Balkans, and Barry Hart of the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University, also a frequent organizer of such meetings in the former Yugoslavia, to act, along with me, as instructors for the conference. The Acton Institute also sent one of its instructors, Todd Flanders, to work with us.

Ten Days in Caux

So after innumerable crises over transport and visas, we came to the meeting, which lasted 10 days from Feb. 12 to 21. Pierre Spoerri of Moral Re-Armament had urged us to leave ample time. For the first couple of days, he said, everyone would be polite. Then we could have the fight, and afterwards we would really get down to business.

On the opening day the students spoke warily of their reasons for coming. The pain of their experience stood out raw and plain, but their courtesy to one another, while hiding nothing of the trauma, was exemplary. If blame for their agony was to be assigned, it would be to the world outside the Balkans and the cruel indifference with which it had stood by and watched. Acknowledgment on our part was essential.

A first exercise asked the participants to explain to one another how they had come to choose a career of religious service in their communities. We had planned this in order to accustom the participants to speaking openly to one another about their personal choices. It brought out, with surprising candor, their religious and spiritual experience.

During the next two days David Steele and Barry Hart spoke about the process of coming to terms with the trauma of war and aggression against oneself and one’s community. An important exercise of this part of the conference was to compose, in the small mixed groups, written laments over the wars. Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff, Chief U.S. Navy Chaplain, brought to this a learned and compassionate understanding of the Hebrew psalms of lamentation, models of that essential process of grieving.

The students insisted that they wanted theology to be the backbone of this conference, not merely sociology. They wanted to understand the deepest roots of one another’s religious experience and how, from such beginnings, so much hatred, exclusion and enmity could spring. We spoke much of the instrumental use of religion for the cynical and nationalistic agendas of others or for the expression of rage. They also had to inspect the resources in each religious tradition for acknowledging and reverencing one another’s faith and religious practice.

The fight of which Pierre Spoerri had warned us was slow in coming. The students came to enjoy one another’s company, to share laughter, to recognize one another’s experience of pain and to care for one another. Midway through the conference they had a break day, which some spent skiing and others sightseeing in Geneva, that enhanced the bonding among them.

Then suddenly, on the next to last day, it all seemed to break apart. The issue was the address list, with names, home addresses, phones, Fax numbers and e-mail that we had supplied to everyone. We had known, from the beginning, that this conference would be most difficult for the Serbs, who would feel that everyone blamed them, that they were always held guilty, whatever they did. Now they erupted, noting that the Kosovars were listed simply as from Kosovo and not as from the Kosovo Province of Serbia. All the pain of Serbia’s crushing loss of four successive wars became concentrated in that fact. It was the fault, we were told, of the American organizers. Had we consciously chosen to supersede the recognition, by the international community, that Kosovo was and remained a part of Serbia? Was it simply oversight, and would we correct it, adding “Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” to each Kosovar address?

The Kosovar Albanians had no intention of accepting such a correction. What we had intended to be a brief preparation for a small-group discussion that would help prepare a final statement of the conference became three and a quarter hours of wretched wrangling over this impasse. At one point the question arose: Was this the end of the conference?

It was not, of course. Instead we had come to the most necessary part of the experience. The Serbs would have gone home with no real healing experience from this conference had they not expressed their pain in this way. It was as if some formula to express that pain had been sought all along, yet not acted upon because of their forbearance with the rest of us. This matter of the address list lent itself to the need for an outcry. It was as if one card had been plucked from the deck and found to provide the winning formula. Had we resolved the matter just on the basis of the addresses, they would have failed to express what they had to express, and would have had to seek another card. The others too would have gone home without really gaining what they needed from the conference.

That afternoon provided the real cement of the meeting. We refused to impose on the Kosovars a definition of themselves that was not their own, as that would have been coercion. But in acknowledgment of the Serbs’ consternation we agreed that a separate list of participants, identified only by their religious affiliation, would be the official roster of the conference.

The Serbs caucused that night to reflect on our responses. On the next and final day, a Sunday, many of the Catholic participants took the occasion to join the Orthodox at a liturgy in nearby Vevey. The bus ride down the mountain and back provided the occasion for many helpful conversations. The afternoon’s small group meetings provided the materials for a final statement of the conference, hammered out that evening by the professors who had accompanied the different confessional groups. Surprisingly, the 10 Kosovar participants, from the four religious traditions, managed their own declaration of purpose that all were able unreservedly to sign.

As they returned home the following day, participants showed great affection and concern for one another in the problems and deprivations of their different communities. Since then, they have found occasions to meet again and make their own plans for further conferences. They are burning up the e-mail with communications and holiday greetings to one another. The Balkan conflict has not reached a solution, but these students have committed themselves to finding one—together.

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