Browsing through old photo albums recently reminded me of a holiday in the Balkans several years ago. We took a day trip to Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina, the site of vicious fighting a few years earlier. On the way we stopped briefly at a village (the name of which I didn’t note down at the time) perched in a hillside near the Croatian border. Not long before it had been a thriving Muslim settlement, but now was almost in ruins. Half way up the hillside was an abandoned mosque approached by a cobbled track overgrown with weeds. It had no roof, but the walls were more or less intact and covered with superb mosaics and frescos, slightly faded but nonetheless impressive. We wondered how such a beautiful building had been allowed to deteriorate so badly.
We found the answer 400m away, in the part of the village that had escaped the worst of the devastation. In the centre of the square stood a huge wooden cross standing proud. Obviously the mosque was a victim of the consequences of centuries of religious conflict.
When we arrived in Mostar we were even more horrified by what we found; everywhere once beautiful buildings were completely gutted, and, worst of all, a 600 year-old footbridge, one of the wonders of its day, had been completely destroyed. The stones that once formed it were lying in the river far below. Alongside was a temporary structure made of scaffolding which formed the only direct access between the Muslim bank and its Christian (Serbian) equivalent.
We learned from our guide that until the early 1990s Mostar’s Serbs, Muslims and Croatians shared an uneasy coexistence. When civil war broke out, the (mainly Orthodox) Serbs had attempted to expel the Muslims and (Catholic-leaning) Croatians, but were themselves driven out. Then the Muslims and Croatians turned on each other, and one night in an act of sheer spite a gang of Croatian youths blew up the historic bridge. What made this calamity even more pointless was that it had no military function; it was not wide enough to take a jeep, never mind a tank.
Later, I was admiring the stunning view of the river running through the gorge in the centre of town, trying to imagine what the bridge had looked like in its heyday and marvelling at the skills of the medieval civil engineers who built it, when a strong feeling of anger came over me. Not only was I gazing at a symbol of ethnic conflict, but of bitter religious intolerance. No doubt all sides would claim they acted in the name of G_d and that G_d was totally on their side, like in the famous Bob Dylan song from his protest days. Then a small voice in my head said, ‘Go on, write that book you’ve often contemplated. Write from the heart, say what you mean. Rebuild a few bridges of your own.’
Others have had similar experiences and claimed it to be the voice of G_d, but frankly I’m not convinced that G_d, if ‘he’ exists in any form that we can comprehend, has a ‘voice’. I might even have ignored it altogether if it were not for what happened a few minutes later.
Having crossed the river from the ancient and narrow streets of the Muslim quarter to the so-called modern sector, we looked up and saw, on top of the highest hill, another enormous cross. It stood triumphant, proclaiming, ‘We won. Our religion is the right one, superior to yours. Our G_d is better than your G_d.’
I thought of the tragic events that had taken place in Afghanistan shortly before, when two giant Buddhist statues carved into a mountainside were destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists. I thought of the well-meaning, down to earth British folk in a town well-known to me who were up in arms because the Muslim community wanted to build a mosque close to a Sikh temple, the hostile rantings of certain TV preachers in America, and the armed security guards outside an evangelical church I had recently seen on my travels. I reached for my pen…..
Religious intolerance is a primitive, fear-based response to something unfamiliar, that we do not understand, fostered by centuries of cultural and religious programming and conditioning. Spirituality is something else entirely. Being grounded in experience, it transcends beliefs, and can be shared by all with wisdom and goodwill. It is, above all, about peace. Bring it on!
©David Lawrence Preston, 6.4.2016
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