Magazines 2022 Sept - Oct The peacebuilders of Sarajevo

The peacebuilders of Sarajevo

13 October 2022

The peacebuilding work in Sarajevo among a small band of Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bozniaks and Catholic Croats is inspiring, writes Phil Wagler

In 1992 the city of Sarajevo, that just eight years earlier hosted the Olympic Winter Games, came under siege by Serbian forces. It became the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare, lasting 1,425 days and claiming more than 14,000 precious lives.

The images of civilians sprinting across intersections to avoid indiscriminate snipers and of a cellist playing defiantly in the rubble of one of the city’s central buildings remain horrifyingly iconic. As the ethnic conflict continued beyond Sarajevo, news of the inconceivable genocide of 8,372 Bozniak Muslims also at the hands of Orthodox Christian Serbs in the forests and fields of Srebrenica shocked the world – yet sadly seemed dwarfed by the genocidal nightmare happening in Rwanda simultaneously.

How could this happen in the enlightened, waning years of the 20th century? Why did the nations of the world seemingly do nothing, even with Dutch UN peacekeepers present in Srebrenica, which had been declared a UN safe zone?

And, for those who are Christians, are we not offended that those claiming to be Christian carried out such atrocities – not only against Muslims, but against one another?

While numerous factors contributed to the Balkan War, at its core it was an ethnic and religious conflict. Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bozniaks and Catholic Croats, with a smattering of Protestants, were reenacting an enmity that went back to the 1300s. Even today, just two decades after the disaster memorialized in museums, parks, Sarajevo “roses” and the lingering bullet pockmarks on the city’s central Catholic Church, these same tensions remain – and some say are even worse.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9).

Even before the tenuous peace ratified by the Dayton Agreement in 1995, the children of God were not standing on the sidelines. Ivo Markovic, a Franciscan friar whose home village was razed and his family killed, stood with the majority Muslim population of Sarajevo. Despite his own trauma and sorrow, Markovic was convinced acting like a child of God in obedience to the ways of Jesus was necessary.

He felt a moral responsibility as a Christian and community leader in an inflamed inter-religious context. While he called on other nations to intervene militarily to stop the violence, Markovic crossed front lines negotiating ceasefires to protect the vulnerable.

His witness did not go unnoticed. Some Muslim and Orthodox Christians recognized a different way was necessary if the future was to be different, once the snipers stopped their tyranny and the mountains rising above Sarajevo could be appreciated for the beauty, not feared for their camouflaged cannons.

As part of a congress held by the European Evangelical Alliance in October, 29 evangelical leaders, including Ukrainians, traveled to the Franciscan monastery of St. Anthony to learn with Markovic and Dr. Zilka Spahic Siljak (Bosnian Muslim) and Olivera Jovanovic (Orthodox Serb). These three have become mutual friends and compatriots in the ongoing challenge of shifting the hearts, minds and stubborn ethnic, political and religious pride of their homeland. Theirs is a mutual commitment to vibrantly bring their own faith convictions to a partnership that seeks the common good.

“Religious leaders need to commit to the way of non-violence and peacemaking” challenged Markovic (who does not consider himself a pacifist). Educating the next generation and modeling the way of Jesus is the task of spiritual leadership. Those who lead religious communities are crucial, he noted, because the “secular world cannot co-ordinate the spirituality of peace – and so religious leaders must be present and be a moral corrective” right where we are and who we are among. This work is for the whole world that God loves – after all, don’t Christians pray, “Your kingdom come on earth (and that means all people and the whole earth) as it is in heaven?”

From a Muslim perspective, Siljak (who was inspired toward this peacebuilding vocation among her own people by Markovic’s model) challenged evangelical leaders to get involved and shape a culture of peace and reconciliation because “Jesus instructed you in that way” and, at least in Europe and North America, “you have power, privilege, wealth and the educational resources to help the world!”

She asked pointedly, “Are you preparing people to recognize Jesus when he returns?” And, she reminded evangelicals that Muslims too are waiting for Jesus to return and that Christians have a unique responsibility to help them see Him clearly.

Jovanovic, whose Serbian people bombarded Sarajevo, noted the great danger of hypocrisy when our stated theologies are not what people experience in our practice, or in our coffee shop conversations, or on our social media posts. “Peace and reconciliation should be everyday life and the example of the Christian,” she contended. This everyday living like Jesus was not the reality for Serbian Orthodox Christians in the 1990s, with disastrous consequences.

As a peacebuilding triumvirate in a complicated ethnic and inter-religious context, this trio of Ivo, Zilka and Olivera modeled something profound on that sunny October day. They also, however, were a warning for all who would respond to the blessed call to shape reconciling communities – it is stormy work. Each one, among their own people, have been called traitors, misunderstood and even considered heretics. Each one has had to learn to listen well to those who are not like them, while unapologetically holding to their faith convictions because the welfare and shalom of their city depends upon it.

To be a peacebuilder in Sarajevo continues to be a dangerous vocation. Is it dangerous where you are? Is the central gospel imperative to be ambassadors of reconciliation, seeking the eternal and temporal shalom of God’s world something we are taking risks to learn? Are we up for such a peacemaking challenge, dear children of God?

Phil Wagler, who helped organize this event with the Christian Peacebuilding Network based in Sarajevo, is global director of the World Evangelical Alliance’s Peace & Reconciliation Network and global liaison for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. He lives in Kelowna, B.C. This blog series and related podcasts are produced in collaboration with the Peace & Reconciliation Network. Read all the blog posts at