An unholy powderkeg

If people think about Bosnia at all, these days, they may think of it as a story of relative success: as a war zone where the Western world, albeit tardily, intervened with a mixture of draconian military force, long-term peace-keeping and political tutelage—and as a place where rival ethnic and religious groups were successfully induced to live together more or less peaceably in a single, though loosely articulated, state. A bit like Iraq was supposed to be, you might say.

Sadly, the short-term trend in Bosnia seems exactly the opposite, and religion is playing its part in that development. Among the Bosnian Croats, who are supposed to be cooperating with their Muslim or Bosniak neighbours to keep one of Bosnia's federal parts going, the spirit of ethno-religious chauvinism is abroad—and some Catholic clerics are egging it on.

On June 6th, an erstwhile leader of a Bosnian Croat statelet, Dario Kordic (pictured above) flew back to Croatia after serving 17 years of a 25-year prison sentence, imposed by an international war-crimes court for massacres of Muslim civilians in 1993. Among the Croat nationalist hard-liners who gave him a hero's welcome at the airport was a prominent Catholic bishop, Vlado Kosic. Then a service to celebrate his homecoming was held at Zagreb's main place of Catholic worship—prompting a peace-minded NGO to stage a demonstration outside the cathedral, brandishing the names of people killed in a notorious massacre. Mr Kordic's supporters claim that as a political leader, he did not bear direct responsibility for the killings; and that the court didn't pay enough attention to the killing of Croat civilians by Muslims. But moderate Croats are horrified by Mr Kordic's re-emergence as a nationalist hero, and at the church's support for this process.

In recent days, the mood has darkened in the Bosnian-Croat heartland of Mostar after a professor who had criticised the resurgence of Croat nationalism was attacked in his office by an intruder wielding a baseball bat, and badly beaten up.

On the Serb side, the sight of clerics defending convicted war criminals is a familiar one. In 2011, for example, several Orthodox clergy attended the launch, in a church premises in Belgrade, of a memoir by Milan Lukic, a Serb warlord who was found guilty of burning civilians to death in two places as well as many other atrocities.

Despite all this, the region's religious leaders can still be relied on to express benign sentiments when called on, in a formal way, to do so. In 2012, the Sant'Egidio movement, a remarkable Catholic peace-making initiative, held a conference in Sarajevo where Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim leaders reaffirmed their belief in peace and reconciliation. Patriarch Irinej, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, risked the ire of hard-liners by attending. Oasis, another Italian-based group which focuses on Christian-Muslim dialogue, held a similar exercise in Sarajevo this month. At a slightly humbler level, it is always possible to find brave clerics and small institutions who rein in rather than encourage the demons of inter-communal hate.

But for peace-minded Catholics in the heart of Bosnia, there is now a double challenge, as one old Bosnian friend explained to me. On one hand, they are trying to discourage their Catholic and Croat co-religionists from relapsing into chauvinism; on the other, they see among their Muslim neighbours a resurgence of hard-line, Saudi-influenced Islam which has little interest in co-existence. A few hundred Muslims from around Sarajevo have gone to fight in Syria. In Bosnia, as in many European countries, people await the return of these mujahideen with trepidation.