Catholic schools form rare oasis amid Bosnia’s ethnic strife
I was caught by surprise recently when a Western diplomat told me that Serb students were in majority in the Catholic high school in Banja Luka, a town that had become predominantly Serb after persecution of other ethnic groups during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. Banja Luka is the largest town of the Serb Republic, which along with the Muslim-Croat federation makes up postwar Bosnia .
(Photo: A Catholic school in Sarajevo, 25 Nov 2009/Danilo Krstanovic)
Then I learned that Bosnian Muslims account for 80 percent of students in the Catholic school in the western town of Bihac, where Muslims are in majority. It turned out that the situation is similar in all seven Catholic centres opened across Bosnia during and after the war. These schools paradoxically became rare multi-ethnic oases in the country where public schools are largely dominated by a majority ethnic group.
This got me wondering why the Catholic Church wanted to open school in Banja Luka, for example, the town in which only seven percent of 44,000 Croat Catholics that had lived before the war remained to live today. The result is a feature that just ran on our newswire. That tells the story, but let me tell you a bit more about the background.
“I am a Banja Luka native, my family had lived here for over 300 years and I regard myself obliged towards this town and towards Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Banja Luka Bishop Franjo Komarica, a driving force behind the opening of the Catholic school in the Serb-dominated town. “I don’t have the right to feel less worthy for being what I am – a Croat by ethnicity and a Catholic by religion,” said Komarica, who had stayed in Banja Luka throughout the war and fought for the return of Croats in the town.
(Photo: Bishop Franjo Komarica, 25 Dec 2007/Ranko Cukovic)
The education system in Bosnia has been in chaos since the once multi-ethnic country split along ethnic lines into two autonomous regions. The Muslim-Croat federation, the larger half of Bosnia, is itself divided between Muslims and Croats, while the Serb Republic has become largely mono-ethnic after the wartime policy of mass killings and persecution of other ethnic groups from its territory.
Consequently, largely mono-ethnic public schools have become the places of discrimination for minority groups in many ways. An Orthodox Serb or Catholic Croat pupil in a Sarajevo public school must take days off during Islamic religious holidays even though Bosnia is officially secular country. In the same way, Muslims and Croats must take holidays during Serb Orthodox holidays. The students who don’t take the optional religious classes (usually from minority groups or atheist families) are forced to sit outside the classroom, waiting for the next class. Some kids opt to take classes of a religion they don’t belong to in order to be accepted by a majority group.
Some sociologists say the difference between Catholic and public schools in Bosnia shows a simple difference between private and public schools. “Private schools can operate better because they are more flexible,” said Dino Abazovic, who teaches sociology of religion at the Sarajevo University School of Political Science and who explained the expansion of the Catholic schools network by their long tradition in the region.
(Photo: Santa Claus at a Sarajevo Catholic school, 5 Dec 1996/ Danilo Krstanovic)
Ivica Mrso, the dean of the Catholic School Centre in Sarajevo, said that schools that opened in the 1990s despite the war and destruction have remained open and popular in spite of ongoing ethnic and religious splits. “The main reason that we survived here is that we did not allow any political interference in our schools,” Mrso said, adding this decision cost them dearly in financial terms. “It would have been much easier to run the school only for Croat kids,” he said. There was a bitter tone in his voice when he explained that while many parents appreciated the school’s openess, ever more people, particularly Croat and Muslim nationalists, were opposed to the idea of bringing children of different religions and nationalities together.
To illustrate how silly it was to judge children’s nationality or religion by the school they attend, he gave an example of a student who ate a sandwich in the Catholic school’s yard during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. A group of hooligans who were Muslims attacked him for eating during Ramadan, assuming he was a Catholic who was not showing respect for the customs of the majority population. “What they did not know was that his name was Haris,” Mrso said, stressing the typical Bosnian Muslim name.
Most Bosnian Muslims were secular before the war but the majority of them turned to religion afterwards. In today’s Bosnia, atheist Muslims have come under pressure just as secular Croats, Serbs and people in and from mixed marriages.