TransConflict is pleased to present a letter from Reverend Donald Reeves regarding the May 7th inauguration of the Ferhadija Mosque in Banja Luka on May 7th 2016, the twenty-third anniversary of its destruction.
Peter Pelz, co-director of the Soul of Europe, Lord Hylton, our patron, Ferre Westermanns, a trained diplomat from the Netherlands, together with our colleagues in Bosnia, Adnan Jabucar, Anel Alisic, and Zoran Dukic and myself were the guests of the Islamic community at the inauguration of the Ferhadija Mosque.
There were around eight thousand people present. The event was well covered by CNN, Al Jazeerah, the BBC and many European networks. On the platform by the mosque sat the President of the Republika Srspka, Milorad Dodik, alongside many muftis and imams, politicians and religious leaders including our friends the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Banja Luka, Bishop Jefrem, and the Catholic bishop of Banja Luka, Bishop Komarica. Both gave speeches welcoming the mosque. The diplomatic corps of Bosnia was well represented and we sat just behind them.
A message from the Prince of Wales was conveyed to the mufti of Banja Luka, Dr. Osman Koszlic, who thanked publicly the Soul of Europe for our initiation of the project to rebuild the mosque. He thanked us also privately. As we have been told many times by all the leaders there would have been no Ferhadija without the Soul of Europe. The site had been earmarked to be a car park. The ceremony was interrupted by the late arrival of the Prime Minister of Turkey accompanied by a posse of security officers, intimidating young men in dark suits, white shirts, black ties and dark glasses. The Turkish Development Agency paid for most of the mosque reconstruction, but at the behest of the Soul of Europe the government of the Republika Srpska also contributed.
Listening to the speeches on a mild summer’s day celebrating the rising of the mosque from the ashes got me thinking about how we came to be involved. Those of you who follow our activities may remember in 2000 we made a solemn promise to the mufti of Banja Luka to ‘help the rebuilding of the mosque’.
We underestimated the difficulties – the visceral hatred by Bosnian Serbs of Bosniaks, the struggle to get planning permission, the efforts to encourage the small elderly Bosniak community in Banja Luka, and the complete lack of interest from the EU and Western governments who regard religion as a private matter, the indifference of NGOs in Bosnia who said that we were wasting our time and should concentrate on workshops for developing civil society. Europa Nostra a leading conservation body only restore existing buildings, so they were not interested.. The mayor of Banja Luka wondered why a mosque was needed since there were few Muslims now living in the city (not mentioning the reason, that thirty thousand had been ethnically cleansed). We stumbled into a dispute between two Islamic communities, the Turkish and the Saudi, both with influence in Bosnia. There were some outrageous proposals made by the municipality – like having high-rise buildings around the mosque site to hide the minaret. And some Muslims did not want a jewel of the country’s artistic heritage rebuilt: its destruction became something to beat the Serbs with.
Then our efforts in trying to involve European interfaith groups were not successful: just too difficult we were told politely. Different European Muslim communities said: ‘Let them build their own mosques’. A mufti in Trinidad where I was a guest told me: ‘All the mosques in Bosnia should be destroyed since Bosnians are not proper Muslims.’ Our only successful journeys were to Libya where as part of Gaddafi’s plan to come ‘out of the cold’. Libya funded our work for three years. ‘Take the money and run,’ advised Richard Dalston, the UK Ambassador in Tripoli. Libya funded the Coventry Consultation.
From the start we considered the reconstruction of the Ferhadija Mosque to be part of the rebuilding of communities in Banja Luka. This was the purpose of the Coventry Consultation and the projects which emerged from them. They are described in Peter’s book Dust, awaiting publication.
I am often asked why we continued with this work given all the obstacles. The answer is simple. We made a promise and kept it. Hence the warmest of welcomes to the Soul of Europe from the people of Banja Luka.
The new mufti in Banja Luka, Dr Osman Kozlic, wants us to help devise programs for conversation between the different communities, to encourage the Ferhadija to become a place of pilgrimage and an inspiration for projects towards ‘the common good’. All that may sound bland but Banja Luka is about as far right as you can get, and the current President would like a separate state which would lead to the break-up of Bosnia. So whatever programs the Islamic community undertakes will be difficult. I have some ideas but they are for future discussion.
Adnan Jabucar brought with him a film crew from Sarajevo who are now editing a documentary about the Soul of Europe, including interviews with all three religious leaders. We will let you know when it is ready.
I will be making a Presentation on Bach and Peace-building at Christchurch, Highbury on Saturday June 4th at 19.30. Christchurch is at 155 Highbury Grove, London.
Thank you from all of us at the Soul of Europe above all for your support, financial, advisory and spiritual. The rebuilt mosque is a vindication of your trust in us. We are continuing with the project of National Dialogue, plans for making the mosque a centre for reconciliation, and finally to ensure a memorial for those murdered at the Omarska killing camp. Our work continues.
Reverend Donald Reeves MBE is an Anglican priest and the founder of the Soul of Europe. The Soul of Europe works as catalysts and mediators to ensure a peaceful resolution to conflicts, particularly in the Balkans.
The views reflected in this article do not necessarily represent those of TransConflict.