- Louis Venters
'Triumph of Light over Darkness': Rebuilding Bosnia's Religious and Cultural Heritage
Today in Banja Luka, the second city of Bosnia and Herzegovina and de facto capital of that country's Serb-dominated half, thousands of Bosnian Muslims and members of other faiths gathered to dedicate the reconstructed Ferhat Pasha Mosque, 23 years after it was blown up by Serb paramilitary forces. Once the principal place of worship for Banja Luka's substantial Muslim minority and considered one of the finest examples of Ottoman religious architecture in Europe, the Ferhadija, as it was known, and 15 other mosques in and around the city were destroyed early in the Bosnian War (1992-1995), a horrific conflict that tore apart a vibrant multi-ethnic society and brought the chilling term "ethnic cleansing" into the vocabulary of the post-Cold War world. For many in Banja Luka--and not just Muslims--the destruction of the mosques was a devastating blow, an indication that the soul of their diverse, cosmopolitan city had died. (I have written more about this here.)
For years, Bosnian Muslims, their fair-minded neighbors of other faiths or of no faith, and international authorities have worked to rebuild the Ferhadija and other historic mosques, as much as symbols of reconciliation as places for contemporary worship. A cornerstone-laying ceremony was held on May 7, 2001, during the year my wife and I lived in Banja Luka, and we made it to the end of the event only to realize that local youths, fueled by alcohol and duped by cynical political operators, had attacked some of the Muslim attendees and international officials. From afar we watched them storm a NATO helicopter sent in an attempt to rescue the victims from the small building where they had taken shelter, forcing it to retreat. It was a harrowing experience.
Today, fifteen years after that inauspicious beginning, a new Ferhadija, painstakingly rebuilt with as much recovered material from the original structure as possible, opened to the public. As this article notes, representatives of the Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic Christian, and Jewish communities took part, sending, in the words of the Bosnian Serb president, "messages of peace" to Bosnia and the world. The head of the Bosnian Muslim community called it "a triumph of light over darkness."
Indeed, the completion of this project is an important symbol, and symbols have enormous importance in how individuals and communities perceive themselves and their world.
As a historic preservationist who is particularly interested in how societies treat painful memories; a person who remains deeply attached to the good people of Bosnia; and as a member of a faith whose own religious sites have been razed and adherents targeted for persecution in Iran and other countries (and, early in the last century, even in my own home state of South Carolina), I warmly congratulate the architectural and construction teams, the political authorities at all levels, the organizations of civil society, and the countless individual citizens of courage and goodwill who contributed to the completion of this important project.
Now may this symbol of peace and reconciliation, executed so masterfully in stone, find its counterpart in the hearts and minds of the Bosnian people. The latter task, of course, is infinitely more difficult to achieve, and in a certain sense the Ferhadija is just a building. But I am hopeful. The fact that this project has finally been brought to completion--after years of effort and sometimes violent opposition--indicates that many important steps in healing have already taken place. Surely, these stones are a good foundation to build on.