A group of young Bosnian Muslim students from the Faculty of Islamic Studies at the University of Sarajevo recently performed their evening prayer in a Franciscan monastery in Sarajevo. And they did it on invitation from young Franciscan students and friars.
For some, this event might appear sensational. For others, it might be unimportant. However, given the different religious communities in Bosnia and surrounding areas, this event represents the potential for interfaith and inter-communal existence. This is particularly important in Bosnia, a country that is still recovering from a war in the 1990s that divided people and communities along ethnic and religious lines.
Yet, despite this history, there has been no resistance to interfaith or inter-ethnic initiatives. Many organisations, such as the Inter-Religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina, organise interfaith events.
In most cases, these are high level, involving well-respected representatives of the different religious groups.
While from this vantage point the interfaith meeting is at the Franciscan monastery is nothing new, what is significant about this event is that it takes place at the level of youth. Students themselves are spontaneously reaching out to engage with one another on the basis of their respective religions.
Young friars from Sarajevo’s 20th century Franciscan Monastery, which also is also home to a school of Franciscan theology, are known for being open to dialogue with other religions. Officially Catholic, they follow the path of the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi, who was already involved in what we would now call Christian-Muslim dialogue during the Middle Ages.
Though St. Francis visited the sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil, in 1219 during the Crusades in an attempt to convert him to Christianity, he left a positive impression on the sultan with his messages of peace.
Sarajevo’s Faculty for Islamic Studies is also a traditionally open educational institution that offers classes to non-Muslim students. Some Franciscans attend classes in Islamic Studies, while some Islamic Studies students routinely attend classes offered by the Franciscans.
A couple weeks ago this small, but positive dynamic grew into something new.
A group of Franciscan students invited Muslim students from the Faculty of Islamic Studies to be their guests for a public discussion about the spiritual and universal heritage of the famous 13th century Persian poet and theologian Maulana Jalalluddin Rumi and St. Francis – both of whom are known for their timeless, global messages of peace.
After this discussion, the Muslim students realised it was time for their evening prayer. As they rose to leave for the mosque, their Franciscan hosts told them they had already prepared a room for them to pray.
The Muslim students accepted the kind offer and performed a prayer in one of the theology building’s rooms.
Following the prayer they ate dinner together, which became a joyful opportunity to celebrate the gathering. Someone brought out a guitar and everyone sang together in the monastery until late.
Toward the end of this spontaneous party, Amra Bilajac, an Islamic Studies student, summed up people’s sentiments toward the evening, saying that knowing about each other's beliefs was not enough and this event proved that people also needed to be ready to help one another, despite their religious differences.
Participating students have planned a future meeting, one which would also involve followers of the other religions and ethnic groups that make up Bosnia, such as Serb-Orthodox Christians, Catholic students, Sephardic Jews – and even people who consider themselves agnostics or atheists but who are interested in learning and exchanging ideas about the world we all share.
I once heard an American tourist in Sarajevo say: "Interfaith dialogue here is somehow more relaxed, and more connected to maintaining good neighbourhoods. It is more than official discussions of philosophical and spiritual matters, as it is often engaged in by muftis, bishops and rabbis in other countries." Perhaps the image of Muslims praying in a monastery will inspire other countries to bring interfaith dialogue to a more immediate level, one that involves opening the door – literally – to your neighbours.
* Amir Telibeèiroviæ Lunjo is a journalist for the Sarajevo-based weekly magazine Start BiH and a local city guide. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).