I just returned from the Balkans, where ethnic cleaning shocked the world in the early 1990s.
In Bosnia, in particular, you still see many buildings riddled with bullet holes. In one heavily Serbian part of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska, our bus passed hundreds of burned-out homes that were once occupied by Bosnian Muslims who were driven out, murdered or put in concentration camps by the Serbian soldiers led by Slobodan Milosevic.
Sarajevo, in the heart of Bosnia, is 80 percent Muslim. In the civil wars, the city was surrounded by Serbian snipers in the hills above the city, who picked off thousands of men, women and children. Many Croatians and even Serbians within the city were also murdered, but the majority here were Muslims.
The Muslims in the former Yugoslavia are Slavs, forced or enticed to convert when the Turks conquered the area in the 15th century. The only way you can distinguish Muslims from other Slavs is by dress and religious traditions.
Our Muslim guide in Sarajevo made the argument that the civil wars were not about religion as much as land and power. Which invites us to consider as we look at Iraq — is this conflict about differences within Islam, or land and power? I would argue for the latter.
I believe that religion is used by power-hungry groups to fan the flames of hate. Religion then becomes an ideological justification for conflicts in which the true basis is the desire for power over territory and people.
We should not blame Islam for these conflicts, or Christianity for the civil wars in the Balkans, but rather evil men who want power and use religion as a means to that end.
History gives us many examples. Hitler, a lapsed Roman Catholic, cleansed his conquered territories of Jews, using ancient anti-Semitic prejudices within Christianity to stir up hatred. His real interest, of course, was land, not religion.
American Indians were cleansed from North America because white people wanted their land, and Christianity was used to stir up hate. In the doctrine of “manifest destiny,” religion even provided an ideological basis for extermination and creating reservations.
The Bible is filled with ethnic cleansing with religion being used as a justification for murder and land grabs. Take this chilling illustration from II Samuel 8:l-2: "David defeated the Philistines and subdued them. … He also defeated the Moabites, and making them lie down on the ground, measured them off by the line; he measured out two lines to be put to death and one full line to have their lives spared."
Today, we would call David a mass murderer — but in the context of the times, he was simply conquering land and killing people inspired by a religious ideology. Also see Joshua 6:17-21, where men, women and children are slaughtered in the name of God, and even all the animals, so the land grab would be complete. Again, murder in the name of God.
Executing people lying on the ground, defenseless, seems to be a Middle Eastern way of killing people, as our TVs are showing us in Iraq.
If religion really had the same power in our minds and hearts as money, land and power, there would be no wars and no ethnic cleansing — at least in those countries which profess to be religious. Mosques and churches fill the cities and countryside of Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and the other former Yugoslavia republics, yet unspeakable atrocities occurred there in the early ‘90s.
Religion is not the cause of ethnic cleansing and wars, but it can be used, and often is, to justify the violence the same religions warn us against. The evil lies in the human heart.
— By the Rev. Henry Idema, Tribune religion columnist