Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) turbulent post-socialist transition has been fundamentally shaped by the relationship between religious communities and ethnonationalism. BiH’s three major ethnoreligious communities — Bosniak Muslims, Croat Roman Catholics and Serb Orthodox — have granted varying degrees of legitimacy to identity-based ideologies. This dynamic was central to the violent conflict BiH experienced in the 1990s, and it continues to be relevant today.

In recent years, the politics of religious representation has returned to Bosnian public life. There is a trend of increasing emphasis on religious identity, participation in religious activities and a renewed presence of religion in the country’s educational system. Questions of religion and religious identity are thus closely intertwined with rising intercommunal tensions and new threats to stability in Bosnia.

Catholic church, Mosque and Serbian Orthodox Church in Bosanska Krupa, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Part I: The Religious Landscape

Brief Historical Overview

The diverse religious makeup of BiH is a product of the region’s tumultuous past. From the emergence of the independent Bosnian Church in the medieval period, the country was effectively Christian. Over time, the influence of Roman Catholicism began to spread into the country, while Orthodox Christianity existed only in Herzegovina in the south. However, neither Western Catholicism nor Eastern Christianity managed to penetrate Bosnia and Herzegovina deeply. In the 15th century, Ottoman conquerors brought Islam into the region, turning it into the most dominant religion. At the same time, a small population of Sephardic Jews are also recorded as existing in Sarajevo from the second half of the sixteenth century.

Bosnia and Herzegovina traded hands many times in the ensuing centuries, eventually joining the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and coming under Soviet rule following World War II as part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). These authorities saw religion as incompatible with new socialist mentalities, and religious leadership was considered clerical and anti-revolutionary. However, religion and sociopolitical matters were not entirely stamped out by SFRY. Religion was also understood culturally and historically in relation to nationalist feelings of being South Slavic people. Religious identity, while not stamped out completely under socialism, transitioned into something cruder: a source of ethnonationalism.

In the ideological vacuum that emerged after the socialist era in the Former Yugoslavia, religion was revitalized and politicized. The politicization of religion was central to the eventual outbreak of the vicious wars which broke out in the 1990s. The definition of religion in BiH has narrowed since the conclusion of these wars, and in some degree because of them. Religion has become increasingly oriented toward — and in some respects reduced to — ethnicity. Separate confessional identities have been encouraged, and religious affiliation has become a powerful way of legitimizing political establishments.


Religious Demographics in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Religion and ethnicity are closely intertwined in BiH. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim, Serbs are predominantly Orthodox Christian, and Croats are predominantly Roman Catholic. The population of BiH is largely divided along these ethnic-religious lines. The General Framework Agreement for Peace — commonly known as the Dayton Accords — negotiated an end to the Bosnian War (1992-1995) by creating the current governance structure of BiH, which is divided into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and the Republika Srpska (RS). Each possess a high level of autonomy. Today, most Orthodox Christians live in RS, while Croat Roman Catholics and Bosniak Muslims are concentrated in FBiH. Religious minorities, such as Jews and Protestants, are concentrated in Sarajevo and other major cities such as Banja Luka, Mostar, Tuzla and Brčko.

map of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Based on the latest census data (2013), BiH has 3,531,159 inhabitants, with the population of RS at 1,228,423 and the population of FBiH at 2,219,220. The vast majority (96.32%) are members of three nations:

  • Bosniaks 1,769,592 (50.11%)
  • Serbs 1,086,733 (30.77%)
  • Croats 544,780 (15.42%)

The confessional structure of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina:

  • Muslims: 71.28%
  • Catholics: 22.10%

The confessional structure of Republika Srpska:

  • Orthodox: 81.39%
  • Muslims: 14.06%
  • Catholics: 2.35%.

Other religions, including the Jews, Reformed Christians/Protestants, and members of new religious movements equal 118,612 (3.4%) of the population. There are in total 38,669 self-declared atheists and agnostics (27,853 atheists and 10,816 agnostics), which represents 1.09% of the total population.

side by side maps of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Overview of the Constitutional Status of Religion:

BiH opted for a constitutional model of “separation of state and faith,” but with an emphasis on cooperation between state and church/religious communities. This is often referred to as the “hybrid” or “collaborative” model. BiH’s constitution does not explicitly mandate the separation of faith and state, but the law on the Freedom of Religion and Legal Position of Churches and Religious Communities posits that “the state may not recognize the status of state religion to any religion nor that of state church or religious community to a church or religious community.” Article 14 of the law also stipulates that “churches and religious communities are separate from the state.”

The legal framework of state and faith relations incorporates principles of equality in religious communities’ rights and obligations, and their independence to define their internal organization. The law recognizes the status of churches and religious communities as legal persons. Due to this, the state may provide religious communities with material assistance for health care, social, educational and charitable services — but on the condition that services are provided without discrimination.

Article 15 of the law details that issues of common interest of both the state and religious communities can be addressed through agreement(s) between the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Council of Ministers, the governments of the entities, and respective churches and/or the religious communities. Currently, the BiH government has signed treaties with the Holy See and Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). This agreement between the state and the SOC is a bilateral, inter-state treaty since the headquarters of SOC is in Belgrade, Republic of Serbia. The basic agreements stipulate that the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina guarantees certain freedoms such as property rights, open publication and communication, and free expression.

The Islamic community has approached the Presidency of BiH for something similar, but that has yet to materialize due to contestation around whether the agreement should be treated as international or intra-state. This seems to be the source of the disagreement among the representatives of the three-member Presidency of BiH. The Bosnian and Croat members are in favor while the Serb member has dissented, showing how old tensions continue to play a role in politics.

State of Religious Freedom

Despite certain constitutional measures implemented to uphold religious freedom, citizens are ultimately forced to accept pre-defined “ethnoreligious” identities or they are suspected of being a “traitor” to their own faith. This involuntary selection violates freedom of conscience, religion and belief. While the European Union Commission’s Report on BiH for 2022 emphasized that freedom of thought, conscience and religion continue to be generally upheld, the Interreligious Council of BiH frequently registers reported acts of vandalism on religious buildings and, to a smaller degree, incidents against religious officials. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe reported dozens of incidents targeting Muslims and Christians. Cases of discrimination, hate speech and hate crimes on religious grounds continue to occur and incidents targeting religious sites persist, particularly in minority and returnee areas. 

Key Religious Actors

Religion and Public Life

In the last three decades in BiH, there has been a resurgence of religion in the public sphere. Among the most relevant indicators are increased participation in religious rituals and other related activities; increased public displays of religious affiliation using specific symbols and other religious insignias; and public religious salutations and greetings. Perhaps most significantly, the presence of religious communities in political life as well as in media and the public education system is increasing.

As in general public discourse around the world, matters such as birth control, abortion, same-sex marriages, and the rights of LGBTQ+ and other minorities are increasingly discussed by religious groups in the public eye. In Bosnia, these are often presented in the context of ethnonational demographic survival and/or as issues of public morality.

However, religiosity in BiH is not limited to the activity of religious leaders or to official, public expression. It manifests in local traditions, family rituals and personal connections to certain communities. Religion is a social phenomenon, and it manifests at different levels: on an individual level as a spirituality of life, a matter of personal identity and worldview; on a collective level as a faith-based community, with its doctrinal teachings, moral norms, symbols, rituals and practices; and on the level of institutions as relevant bodies, including leadership and with a specific type of hierarchy.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, political identities are coded by religious categories. These groups are insistent that their views are a matter of tradition, continuity and self-preservation. Antagonisms based on religious identity are growing stronger. Simultaneously, religious freedom is often understood exclusively as one’s own freedom, and as not that of the other religious identities. Consequently, the legal concept of religious freedom is often misused and manipulated.

An outcome of the war in BiH (1992-1995) is that the everyday lives of many citizens have come to be understood in ethnoreligious terms. Massive ethnic cleansing during that armed conflict resulted in nearly one and a half million citizens being displaced. The death toll was estimated at around 102,000 persons. Approximately 55,000 of those killed were civilians, while just over 47,000 were soldiers. In the postwar era, religious affiliation has become an important way of maintaining persistent ethnopolitical divisions. The impact of the violence and suffering remains, as ethnic tensions continue to influence all aspects of public and private life. Religious nationalists in BiH have come to believe that any change in national and/or religious identity is destructive to the nation.

Interreligious Affairs

The religious leaders of BiH met in the fall of 1996 and formed a working group of high-level representatives from each church and religious community. The process led to the public declaration of a “Statement of Shared Moral Commitment” on June 1997, which formally established the Inter-religious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina (IRC-BiH). Since then, IRC-BiH has been working on activities implemented by five joint working groups: legal experts, media, education, women, and youth.

Most notably, the legal expert group worked to draft a new law regarding the freedom of religion and the legal status of religious communities and churches in BiH. The youth working group organized a series of interreligious conflict resolution trainings in numerous cities. The IRC-BiH organized exchange visits for theology students, where Muslims visited Orthodox and Catholic students and vice versa. The media working group developed several programs that aimed to spread the IRC-BiH’s message of tolerance and peace. The education working group has been actively involved in developing a comprehensive religious education program for BiH’s public school system. They have also drafted and submitted a common view of IRC-BiH principles on the issue of religious education in BiH public schools. The women’s working group focused on social problems, such as poverty, education of the poor, women’s rights, and fostering cultural and religious heritage. They have successfully implemented several charity projects to assist poor and displaced families.

Despite this, the increased politicization of religion has seriously challenged the IRC-BiH’s arguments and activities. SOC leader Metropolitan Hrizostom of Dabar-Bosnia decided in late January 2023 that SOC would terminate its membership in the IRC-BiH. The main reason for such a decision is the alleged “silence of this body on serious crimes that have been committed against the Serb people in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” This decision was prompted by an incident where the tires of two cars with Serbian license plates were punctured in the center of Sarajevo. The Sarajevo police quickly identified and detained the perpetrator, who was found to be a mentally ill person who had just been released from treatment. However, the metropolitan said this represents a “horrific” act and compared it with “neo-Nazi terror” which he said was carried out against Serbs in Croatia in 1991. Other Orthodox voices in the Bosnian Serb community characterized the incident as the culmination of a pattern of anti-Serb statements and actions stemming primarily from Bosniak instigators.  

International and Transnational issues

After the collapse of socialism and Yugoslavia, many dominant religious communities lost their monopoly on the right to be the sole interpreters of religious regulations, and thereby lost some control over the organization of their adherents’ religious life. This came about through the influence of foreign religious groups. Though traditional groups remain dominant, the influence of other groups has been present and somewhat noticeable.

Two religious communities in particular have been affected, namely the Islamic community and Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC). New trends in the interpretation of Islam have appeared in the Wester Balkans and are primarily characterized by conservatism and dissent regarding the developments of modern Islamic thought. The advocates of these new interpretations are often Bosnians who graduated at theological universities from the Middle East or foreign Islamic fighters who remained in BiH after the war. They promote Salafi teaching and worldviews which insist on a pre-modern interpretation of Islam. These ideas are mainly spread on the Internet through social networks, but also through translations and publication of literature from the Arabic language (mostly by those authors and books which were banned under socialism).

However, traditional Muslim communities in the Balkans have strong intellectual, locally-based traditions that affirm the values of peaceful coexistence in pluralistic and multi-religious societies. Most regional researchers argue that for the vast majority of Muslims in the Balkans, attachment to their local/national communities takes precedence over their identification with a diffusely defined and abstract “global umma.” One of the crucial defenses against radicalization is the prevalence of local, traditional Bosnian Islamic practices and beliefs which have developed over the centuries and currently resist the spread of global, neo-conservative Salafism.

Among the Orthodox Christians in Serbia, Montenegro and BiH, the Serbian Orthodox Church is the most trusted institution. Recent surveys confirm that among Orthodox populations there is a strong association between religion and national identity, and that more people in Orthodox-majority countries than Catholic-majority countries support strong church-state ties.

There is some concern that the Serbian Orthodox Church serves as a channel for Russian influence, underlined by a resolution from European Parliament in March 2022, in which they expressed dismay at the role of the SOC in promoting Russian interests, emphasizing their activities in Serbia, Montenegro and the entity of Republika Srpska in BiH. The symbiosis between the SOC and the Russian Orthodox Church has tangible political outcomes. Russia, of course, supports Serbia’s stance on Kosovo and Republika Srpska regarding the Peace Implementation Council in BiH. Moscow also provides support for pro-Russian factions in Montenegro, such as the pro-Serb political coalition Democratic Front. In BiH, the SOC has used its influence to mobilize Bosnian Serbs to support political elites that have explicitly nationalist aims. This has manifested itself in numerous ways, including tacit support of secessionist rhetoric . A number of SOC clerics, influenced strongly by Russian Orthodox Church, continuously promote the values of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, presenting them as standing in fundamental contrast to those of the corrupt and immoral West.  

Part II: Religion and Conflict

During the war in BiH, politicized and ethnicized religion became a powerful tool for mobilization against “ethnic enemies.” Certain actors and institutions utilized traditional religious symbols and slogans, while political developments were interpreted in religious terms.

More specifically, the ethnoreligious “other” was demonized, and its sacred objects were destroyed. The war’s religious characteristics were pervasive: mass pilgrimages, mythical narratives, desecration of bodies and declarations regarding the divinely ordained ethnonational status of contested territories were powerful tools of political mobilization. Debates on the role of religion and religious communities in the war and the following three decades are still considered controversial, both within and outside religious communities. This can be attributed to the ongoing historical value placed on religion and a sustained culture of denial about what happened in the near past.

For example, as a consequence of the massive ethnic cleansing during the war, nearly one and half million Bosnians were recorded as refugees and internally displaced persons. The death toll after the war is generally estimated around 102,000: 55,000 civilians and just over 47,000 soldiers. The International Court of Justice rulings in February 2007 effectively determined the character of the war to be international: “Despite the evidence of widespread killings, rape and torture elsewhere during the Bosnian war, especially in detention centers, the judges ruled that the criteria for genocide were met only in Srebrenica.“ One such example of targeted killings occurred in early July 1995. At the U.N. compound in Potočari/Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serb Army separated more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys from the women and executed, buried and reburied these men in mass graves. So far, nearly 7,000 genocide victims have been identified through DNA analysis of body parts recovered from mass graves, and 6,721 have been buried at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide.

Religion is both a source of and a resolution to conflict in BiH. The sacralization of conflict in political rhetoric is still common. Violence is understood as a mechanism to resolve complex interreligious and interethnic issues. However, there have been some efforts by religious institutions to perform healing roles and acknowledge human suffering. There have also been numerous efforts by Western governmental and non-governmental organizations to engage in conflict resolution and peacebuilding — including interreligious dialogue that includes expatriate and domestic religious communities and faith-based organizations — but overall results and achievements have been limited thus far.

Religious leaders have not been active participants in conversations on transitional justice as they have been in other countries. This may be due to insufficient interreligious communication channels or distrust between the state and religious groups. Whether for these or other reasons, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s organized religions have so far chosen the course of “eloquent silence.”

Conclusions: Looking Ahead

The strong link between competing ethnic, political and religious identities often function as a barrier to the creation of a common state identity in BiH. To truly achieve a functional multi-religious society, one of the first interventions is the institutional creation of public space for interreligious communication and recognition. This is particularly important in the context of the present period of renewed ethnic nationalism in Bosnia.

The institutional framework established through the Dayton Peace Agreement does not always encourage cross-ethnic cooperation. Rather, it sometimes institutionalizes ethnic discrimination by not addressing past tensions publicly. For a new political system to be effective in a society with a sinister past, for it to encourage public deliberation, participatory democracy, and representative government, the different factions of society must have channels to openly confront that past. Given their historical and contextual position within society, religious actors must be some of the most crucial actors in this process.

This primer was drafted by Professor Dino Abazović of Sarajevo University with input from USIP Religion & Inclusive Societies Former Visiting Scholar Camilla Gray and Research Analyst Aidan Houston.

Suggestions for Further Reading