Selected Longer Reviews

The Bridge Betrayed: religion and genocide in Bosnia

By Sells, Michael

University of California Press, Berkeley / Los Angeles / London, 1996, 244 pages,
Price: 15.95 Pound Sterling
Shelf mark: 297.949742

This is an important and well-researched book. The author, an American Professor of Religious Studies with a partly Serb background, analyses with great thoroughness and understanding the way religion led to genocide in Bosnia, as also the way people in the West - both politicians and church leaders - for the most part systematically closed their eyes to the greatest crime committed in post-Second-World-War Europe, endeavouring to cover up with a series of futile and essentially immoral explanations about what was going on and why they could and should do nothing about it. The scale of the wider collusion in genocide has been vast indeed and, in strict terms of international law, few are the leaders of the West who could not reasonably be indicted for such collusion at The Hague.

While Sells concentrates mostly on the responsibility of Serb religion and nationalism for the genocidal crimes of 1992-95, he devotes one important chapter to the Croats, important especially for Catholics. It is chilling to realise that the worldwide preoccupation of devout Catholics with the Marian visions at Medjugorje has proceeded throughout the period when the Catholics in and around Medjugorje have been systematically murdering and expelling Muslims from their midst and destroying every historic Muslim monument they could lay their hands on. Of twenty-nine major Islamic buildings in Mostar, dating from 1552 to 1651, twenty-seven have been totally destroyed. The theme of resurgent Croat nationalism orchestrated by President Tudjman has been that Croatia is part of Europe and has, moreover, the mission of "Europeanizing" Bosnia. This is how they did it. The Croats did not, of course, begin the Genocide in Bosnia - they came in on it like jackals in the wake of Karad_i_ - yet their part has been steadily underestimated through the influence of a very powerful Catholic lobby in Germany and elsewhere. Despite the Pope’s appeals for Bosnia, he too never clearly brought his influence to bear at the one point where it could have been effective - in publicly condemning the policy of Croatia, a policy backed to the hilt by large sections of the Church in western Hercegovina.

The central theme of this book is, however, a Serb one. One of the most depressing things about the whole Yugoslavia breakdown has been the influence of diaspora Serb and Croat groups in Europe and North America backing the extreme nationalists. While there have been many brave Serbs in Bosnia and Belgrade to speak out against the whole Serb national enterprise, there has been almost no Serb voice in Britain, for instance, which has done other than act as a defender of what in fact has been genocide. That is why it is important to note the Serb background of Sells. There has, alas, been a further religious extension of this same phenomenon: it is very noticeable that other Christians with a special interest in Orthodoxy and in ecumenical relations with the Orthodox have almost entirely failed to make their voice heard against what has been done with massive Orthodox backing. A false ecumenism has thus become a powerful factor in undermining Christian concern for justice: a defence of the good name of Churches has become more important. This is one of the reasons, one suspects, for the general decline in respect for the World Council of Churches and for circles connected with it.

Sells is quite clear that what we are talking about is "genocide" and nothing less. That, of course, is something the establishment in the West has never wanted to admit, because it places legal obligations upon other states in a way that civil war does not. The evidence for it, however, is overwhelming, and that is where Sells starts, following on Roy Gutman’s Witness to Genocide, Norman Cigar’s Genocide in Bosnia and other exceedingly well-resourced books. He goes on to explore the ideological rooting of the pursuit of genocide in the myth of the Battle of Kosovo, the theme of the Christ killer, and the way the darkest side of the Serb religious and national tradition was deliberately resurrected and played upon by ecclesiastical and political leaders in the 1980s. It is important in that context to note that the Church authorities have separated from Miloševi_ where and only where they have seen him as failing to implement their extreme brand of religious nationalism. They have never criticized Karad_i_ as they have Miloševi_. It is, therefore, futile to point to church criticism of Miloševi_ as proof of a certain surviving conscience within the leadership of Serbian Orthodoxy. It actually indicates the opposite. It does no long-term service to Orthodoxy whatever to obscure its collusion in crimes of this order, fomented by a long tradition both religious and literary, in which The Mountain Wreath, a classic written by Njegoš, a nineteenth-century bishop of Montenegro, is crucial. While being no less than an instigation to the mass murder of Muslims, it has often been seen as the most central work in the Serb literary tradition.

Bosnia has provided horrific proof that, fifty years after the Holocaust, the world’s promise "Never Again" has come to mean remarkably little. One wonders whether John Major was even aware of the existence and terms of the Genocide Convention. What is certain is that almost the entire political and religious establishment of Britain, France, the United States and Western Europe in general willingly swallowed a totally false interpretation of the conflict and for three years did everything possible to ensure that the victims of genocide remained defenceless. The scale of atrocities was deliberately played down, every possible example of Muslim criminality was played up, and understanding of what was in reality a crude re-enactment of the Crusades at their worst was muddied by a constant stress upon the dangers of Islamic Fundamentalism.

Every bishop in the West who evaded doing anything to protest against the arms embargo or against a policy which ensured that nothing effective was done otherwise to stop the killers in their tracks should read this book slowly and penitentially - it might make a better retreat book than anything more ostensibly devout. If Karad_i_ and Mladi_ are unlikely ever to appear to answer for their crimes at The Hague, it is because the political leaders of the West do not want that to happen. And they do not want it because they know that the crime of genocide extends to collusion in it by people in other countries, and once a major trial was under way the degree of collusion of Owen, Hurd, Warren Christopher and many others could become only to obvious. But, at a more spiritual level, would the collusion of Church leaders not also become evident?

Adrian Hastings

This review first appeared in The Heythrop Journal in January 1998

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