Religion and NGOs

Faith-Based NGOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 1, September 2003

Mojca Leban[1]

Throughout history, the nations of Eastern, Central, and Southeastern Europe have preserved their identities primarily through such ethno-cultural symbols as language, ethnicity, and especially religion. Religion has played an important role, strongly influencing society, culture, and politics.

Today, the Third Sector includes a diversity of religious and faith-based associations, sometimes established by citizens and sometimes by religious institutions. Even in the old socialist system, religious institutions operated organizations focused mainly on helping the most vulnerable populations and on organizing cultural events for their followers.

Despite their marginalization in the old system, religious communities significantly influenced citizens. The communities shaped their believers’ opinions in both the social and the political spheres, as became obvious during the tragic war of 1992-95. Now as during the war, religious communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina seek to become influential forces in the republic’s political and social life. This is especially obvious when we look at mono-ethnic and religious activities, the provision of aid, and support to nationalist political parties.

Growing Divisions

Past hatreds have not vanished, despite historical precedents for multicultural coexistence and recent progress toward reconciliation. Indeed, past distrust has been augmented for some people. They are angry not only at the perpetrators of violent deeds, but also at the perpetrators’ communities for remaining silent. Other tensions, cutting across ethnic and religious identities, may also stand as barriers to reconciliation. There is a widening rift, for example, in experience, outlook, and resources between those who remained in place throughout the conflict, those who are returning refugees, and those who remain in refugee camps or otherwise dislocated. Resentment is growing over disparities in post-conflict assistance. The gap between rural dwellers and urbanites is also increasing. Interestingly, Sarajevans tend to think that all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina share an underlying set of values, and therefore Sarajevans are relatively optimistic about prospects for interfaith actions and reconciliation. Those who participate in intercommunity dialogues in more rural areas, by contrast, perceive not only different customs among the various communities but also different basic values, leading them to expect greater difficulty along the route to reconciliation.

Salient differences also exist within the major religious traditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Catholic order of Franciscans in northern Bosnia, for example, continues its long tradition of promoting interfaith tolerance. Other parts of the Croatian Catholic hierarchy and the Franciscans in the south do not share this tradition or perspective.

The Muslim community is challenged by the encounter of local Bosnian traditions with Wahabi customs, which arrived with volunteer fighters from abroad and financial aid from Saudi Arabia. For many Bosnian clergy and laity, the cultural heritage of Ottoman Bosnia includes religious pluralism. The interface between Bosnian tradition and Wahabi customs may hold implications not only for interactions within the Muslim community, but also for that community’s relations with other religious traditions in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Promoting Reconciliation

Many religious-oriented NGOs are working to overcome inherent divisions and other barriers to reconciliation. These organizations are among the more than 600 international NGOs active in Bosnia and Herzegovina (as of the end of the 1990s). Some of these organizations are explicitly religious–i.e., they provide religious services. Other organizations, which are generally motivated by religious values but do not performing religious services, may be termed “faith-based.” Faith-based NGOs engage in a range of activities, including promoting interfaith dialogue, providing immediate humanitarian aid, and fostering long-term reconstruction and sustainable development. These organizations generally hire international and local staff, and they serve anyone in need without regard to religious affiliation. They aim to embody principles of non-discrimination and tolerance of differences in their operations.

There is no definitive database of international faith-based groups active in interfaith reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Compiling such a list would be difficult, in part because Western Christian agencies are apt to adopt the terminology of “interfaith reconciliation,” while Islamic, Orthodox, and secular groups engaged in the same type of activities often describe themselves as working toward relief and development. Some such organizations’ mission statements articulate explicitly religious values, and staff members express pride in their non-sectarian provision of aid.

Diversity of Faith-Based NGOs

Faith-based NGOs vary greatly. Some have a global reach, many years of experience, substantial material resources, and elaborate institutional structures. Others are much smaller and newer and are still defining their mode of operation. Those with fewer resources and less organizational experience may nonetheless have other extremely valuable assets, such as ties to local actors, credibility, and trust. Some faith-based NGOs seek to deliver short-term humanitarian aid while others foresee long-term involvement with local communities. While some organizations aim to help the needy, others seek to strengthen agents of social change.

Western Christian NGOs

In the early 1990s, several large faith-based NGOs provided emergency humanitarian aid, including World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. The paramount need was for basic assistance for survival. These organizations contributed significantly to meeting basic needs and to reconstructing infrastructure throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While such contributions were appreciated, these NGOs’ early activities were also criticized. The organizations were generally deemed inflexible, operating according to their own standard codes of practice rather than responding to local situations. At the same time, the international faith-based NGOs had their own complaints. At first, they lacked local counterparts. In an effort to train local counterparts and to address local needs beyond material reconstruction, they began offering training seminars and workshops, which aimed to build such skills as identifying community needs, preparing grant proposals, and establishing local organizations. Conflict resolution and reconciliation were not on the agenda. Indeed, organizers recall that they directly avoided potentially dangerous discussions and feared confrontations between participants from different religious and ethnic communities.

In other respects too, the activities of faith-based NGOs varied and evolved. Church World Service is an example of a faith-based NGO engaged in relief and refugee assistance around the world. It aims to assist the neediest by distributing food, household supplies, and livestock for subsistence agriculture. Other faith-based NGOs stand out for striving to establish longer relationships with local communities and to follow their lead, through facilitating and supporting initiatives already identified or undertaken by local agents of social change. Such organizations include the Mennonite Central Committee and Quaker Peace and Social Witness. Local activists appreciate the willingness of staff members of these NGOs to spend unstructured time getting to know them. These interactions are considered empowering; they both communicate respect and transfer skills. Foreign staff members are also praised for seeking ways to support local initiatives rather than introducing their own pre-planned programs. Their long-term commitment is also viewed positively. Beneficiaries have the sense that they have become connected to groups and individuals who will not abandon them in the next grant cycle, but rather will be there with ongoing interest, concern, and support.

Although their impact may not be as visible or quantifiable as the humanitarian aid and material reconstruction provided by other groups, such NGOs have built an immense treasury of credibility and trust, primarily through individual relationships between staff members and local actors.

International Muslim and Orthodox NGOs

The international Muslim and Orthodox communities, of course, have long traditions of social assistance. Although they may have less experience operating through formally constituted NGOs than their Western Christian counterparts, they have other assets those counterparts lack. The greatest of these is their presence and immense credibility in communities of their faith, as well as strong negotiating positions with local authorities who share their faith. Islamic Relief Worldwide and International Orthodox Christian Charities are among the international faith-based NGOs active in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These too have proceeded beyond immediate humanitarian aid by seeking to build sustainable peace and development.

Local Faith-Based NGOs

A number of the NGOs linked in some way to issues of religious faith are entirely local, although they depend on outside funding. A glimpse of five organizations in Sarajevo provides a sense of their range. The organizations vary in type and degree of religious affiliation, methods, and objectives. Some directly pursue interfaith reconciliation; others offer aid within their own communities. The organization ABRAHAM, which began as an initiative of lay believers and theologians, is currently collaborating with international and local institutions to develop curricula for the study of world religions to be used in high schools in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The International Multireligious Intercultural Center (IMIC) is an academic institute founded in 1990 to help prevent divisions among people based on religion. It is a forum through which theologians, activists, and artists can communicate and exchange ideas. IMIC is heard in the media and respected by intellectuals. La Benevolencia is the humanitarian organization of the small Jewish community in Sarajevo. It has provided emergency medical supplies, educational activities, and other assistance to citizens regardless of religious affiliation. Merhamet is an Islamic organization that insists on its purely humanitarian nature. It has provided various types of assistance to the needy, particularly the homeless. Dobrotvor is a Serbian humanitarian organization working with the small Orthodox community that remains in Sarajevo. It provides care for the old and sick and has a few small, income-generating projects. While its resources are limited, it has helped international organizations identify the needs of the Serbian population.


As their great range of initiatives demonstrates, faith-based NGOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina are key players in the process of developing civil society. These organizations have very different resources, methods, and aims. While many faith-based NGOs can provide a record of people fed, houses rebuilt, or students enrolled, these are not their sole accomplishments. Many have also contributed to building relationships that are critical to post-conflict reconciliation. Projects as varied as soup kitchens, joint public statements, school councils, and choirs all can further reconciliation.


[1] Mojca Leban is National Assessment Officer at the United Nations Development Program in Sarajevo. Previously she worked for ABRAHAM–Association for Inter-Religious Peace Work. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of the Social Economy and Law (SEAL) Journal, published by the European Foundation Centre. We are grateful to SEAL for permission to reprint it.