From .......... National Catholic Reporter

December 6, 1996

page 16



By Michael A. Sells University of California Press, 212 pages, $19.95


Technically, the term "ethnic cleansing" is a misnomer. Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims all belong to the same ethnic group. They're Slavs, descendants of Slavic tribes that migrated to the region in the sixth and seventh centuries. All three speak a common Slavic language and are physically indistinguishable.

The defining difference between the three groups is religion. Serbs and Croats took on Christianity in the ninth century, while the Muslims of Bosnia converted to Islam during Ottoman rule.

It seems logical, then, to describe the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia as a religious war: The Christian regimes in Croatia and Serbia singled out Bosnian Muslims for elimination because of their faith.

Yet this is not strictly the case, nor does Michael Sells argue that religion was the primary cause of slaughter in the Balkans. The war, rather, was one of territorial aggression, orchestrated and actively supported by expansionist regimes in Serbia and Croatia.

But central questions remain unanswered. Why was the conflict so violent? How could radical nationalist leaders so effectively rally their supporters? And why, in a strictly territorial war, was genocide necessary?

Sells explores the war's religious dimension and above all the role of Christian mythology. The author, chair of Haverford (Pa.) College's Religion Department, shows that a particularly lethal religious-based ideology was used to motivate and justify the war and the extermination of the Bosnian Muslims and their culture.

The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox proponents of this ideology, which he terms Christoslavism, concludes the only true Slavs are Christian Slavs. This makes Muslim Slavs (the Bosnian Muslims) traitors to their race and enemies of Christianity.

Sells traces the impetus of genocide against Slavic Muslims to Serbian Christoslavic myth, which by the 1980s had filtered into public discourse and the media. The central event in Serbian folklore is the Serbs' tragic 1389 defeat at the hands of the invading Turkish Ottoman army on Kosovo Field. During the five centuries of Ottoman rule that followed, Serbs handed down legends and songs about the Battle of Kosovo and the martyrdom of the Serb leader, Prince Lazar.

The Muslim, then, is portrayed as "the other," the Christ killer, the heretic, the pervert, the sadist. Slavic Muslims who converted to Islam and the Ottoman Turks are considered synonymous, an alien, non-European race bent on destroying the Christian Slavs. Sells also shows, though less convincingly, how Christoslavic ideology in Croatia and among Bosnian Croats led to much the same results.

Nationalist Croats harbor the same religious stereotypes of Muslims, and also the larger goal of an "ethnoreligiously" pure state.

But here this thesis runs into the complications inherent in laying too much emphasis on the religious character of the war in Bosnia. While the leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church openly backed the Bosnian Serbs and either denied or justified their crimes, the [Roman] Catholic church hierarchy in Bosnia and Croatia, as well as Pope John Paul, vocally condemned the hard-line Croatian nationalists.

Sarajevo's Cardinal Vinko Puljic became one of Bosnia's most prominent spokespersons for tolerance and multicultural coexistence. Even though individual [Roman] Catholic orders and priests, especially from Herzegovina, did back the radical nationalists, one cannot hold "Christoslavic ideology" responsible for the actions of Croatian extremists.

Religion-based explanations of the war tend to lose sight of its ultimate source: the quest for territory and bounty, the greed of local warlords and the longing to join a greater Croatian state.

Nevertheless, Sells' provocative thesis sheds new light on the genocide in Bosnia. An American of Serbian descent, the author spares Serb nationalists nothing in his analysis of their ultimate responsibility for the destruction of Bosnia.

[picture caption] - "Muslim women from Srebrenica cry during the one-year anniversary last summer of the fall of the refugee safe haven to Serb forces."

Paul Hockenos, a freelance reporter, has covered Bosnia and other parts of Eastern Europe.