1389 Blog February 04 2008
It is about religion, stupid!
During the 1999 Kosovo War the media—inspired by the Clinton Administration was trying to convince the public that an ethnic struggle in Kosovo was pitting Serbs against Albanians. For reasons that no sane man can imagine Clinton and company had picked the Albanians over the Serbs and called in the Luftwaffe and other NATO air forces to bomb the Serbs.
But the news that actually came out of Kosovo made little, if any, sense. Newspaper would always feature a town where the Serbs and Albanians got along very well. Sometimes the Serbs would be offering their Albanian neighbors weapons to defend against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a bin-Laden-sponsored terrorist organization allied with the Clinton Administration. (In those, days most people had not heard of bin Laden and almost no one had ever heard of al Qaeda, so the media cheerfully endorsed American efforts to aid and abet them in their jihad against the Serbs.)
So, why would some Serbs and Albanians get along as great neighbors while other Albanians would join the KLA and fight against the same Serbs? It defied all ethnic analysis. So who are these people in the Balkans anyhow?
Let not pretend the author is familiar with every different subgroup in the Balkans, or even in Kosovo. However, it would be a good start to examine the major religions or the area.
According to the Bible, God started his revelation to mankind through the Jews and so we shall start with them too. World War II was pretty rough on the Jews, but Hitler did miss a few. Not all of the Balkans Jews made it to Israel either, so we have a few over there. To our knowledge they are not much different than Jews the world over. Just remember that they are there for later reference.
The Early Church
If you read Romans 1:16, you will see that Paul admonished Christians to take the Gospel message to the Jew first, but also to the Greek. Some Bibles don’t translate it literally and use the word “Gentile” instead of “Greek.” However, one of the first major conversion stories taking place outside of the Greek-speaking world or Roman Empire was the mission to the Slavic people of Saints Cyril and Methodius. To this day, the alphabets used in Russian, Serbian and several other Slavic languages is known as the “Cyrillic” alphabet in honor of St. Cyril.
Today, the Early Church is commonly known as “Eastern Orthodoxy” or “Orthodox Christianity,” but if you think of it as anything other than the Early Church, you will have a lot of trouble understanding the Balkans. (We can understand if you would rather stay confused, you will be in good company.)
The Orthodox Church was the only major religion in the Balkans for many years. 98 percent of Greeks are Orthodox. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, it is pretty hard to argue that anyone else has a better “interpretation” Scripture than the Greeks. Nearly all Serbs who have any religion are Orthodox as well. It is also popular in Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia and other nations and provinces in the Balkans, including—believe it or not—Albania.
Now, nothing much has changed in Orthodox Church since the First Century. Yes, as of the Fourth Century they have a Bible in written form, and have been promoting lay reading of it every since. Yes, they have had several Church Counsels to clarify things, however, the core beliefs of the Orthodox Church are more or less the same as Roman Catholics and most Protestants. (It’s those details that split up Christianity much more so than core beliefs.)
The Roman Catholic Church
Until 1054, the Eastern Orthodox Church considered the Roman Church to be just another Orthodox Church. True there were a number of disagreements on minor issues, but nothing major. If fact, the only issue that made the Great Schism a necessity is an issue of Church leadership. Our Roman Catholic brothers in Christ recognize the Bishop of Rome, as Pope and the earthly head of the Church. Our Eastern Orthodox brothers in Christ recognize Jesus Christ alone as only head of the Church, earthly or otherwise.
If you draw a line where the Roman Empire was divided at the time of Constantine, you will divide the Balkans between an area that is mostly Roman Catholic and one that is mostly Eastern Orthodox. (It is not an exact border, but it is pretty close.)
The Habsburg Empire, or Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was a dominant force in the Balkans until World War I, was heavily Roman Catholic. Italy, which has a history with Albania also has brought Roman Catholic influence to the Balkans.
During the time when the Eastern Roman Empire (a/k/a Byzantine Empire) was still a strong force in the Balkans, Christianity was the major religion. However, as the Turks invaded, they brought Islam into the area.
Until the 1990s, when Yugoslavia began to break up, few of us in the West realized how many Muslims lived in Europe. Most of these Muslims are ethnically European and speak the same languages as others in their locale, so it is hard to tell them from their Christian neighbors.
While you can find outpost of Protestants, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons and the like most everywhere, we are not going to try to go into all the tiny minority faiths that exist in the Balkans.
Suffice it to say that there will not be many Protestants where there are few Roman Catholics. What so many people tend to forget—even those with fairly extensive religious training—is that there never was a Reformation in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The decentralized overall structure and organization of the Orthodox Church does not lend itself to the corruption that existed in the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation. Besides, it is a little hard to tell someone that he should read the Bible and try to find something wrong with a Church that has always encouraged Bible reading and repentance.
We are not saying that no one in the Balkans ever leaves the Orthodox Church and becomes a Protestant, but is rare. Likewise, it is a rare event when someone leaves Islam for a Protestant faith, but that decision can be deadly as Islam endorses the death penalty for anyone who leaves Islam for another faith.
Ethic Stripes Merge with Divisions of Faith
Who Are the Albanians?
No one is really sure. Some Albanians like to consider themselves descendants of an ancient people that were scorned in the ancient world. A group of illiterate, unruly and unkempt people known as the Illyrians lived in the Balkans during Greco-Roman times. We have no idea what happened to these people nor do we know much about them, as they left no written records. They could not; they had no written language.
We harbor no ill will for the Albanian people. We doubt that the Illyrians actually have any relationship to modern Albanians, and we believe that Albanians are insulting themselves when they look to the Illyrians as a source of heritage. (To any and all Albanian readers, no offense is intended!)
What we do know is that the Albanian language is unique. There is no similar language, which leaves scholars puzzled as to their origin.
After so many years of Communist rule, it is difficult to say what percentage of Albanians have any religious faith. However, the majority of Albanians who are religious are Muslim. The next most common religion amongst the Albanians is Eastern Orthodoxy. The Albanian Orthodox Church is a fully autocephalous organization, which means that it is completely independent of (though in communion with) the other Orthodox Churches. The third most common is Roman Catholic. Before Communist domination, it was estimated that as many as 65 to 70 percent of Albanians many have been Muslim, as many as 20 to 25 percent Orthodox, and the remainder nearly all Roman Catholic.
Who are the Croats?
The Croats are Slavic people. Many of them sided with the Axis Powers during World War II, and Hitler helped establish the short-lived nation of Nazi Croatia. While it is a little-known fact that such a nation ever existed, we have met people who were born in Nazi Croatia. However, many Croatians bravely resisted Nazi occupation and who were some of the brave unsung heroes of World War II.
The Croats speak a Slavic language almost identical to Serbian. In fact, before the breakup of Yugoslavia, the two languages were considered one and called “Serbo-Croatian.” Religious Croats are almost all Roman Catholic.
Who are the Serbs?
The Serbs are also Slavic people with a long history of being different from the Croats. One theorist has even speculated that the Serbs and the Croats were two peoples from a different part the world who migrated to the Balkans in tandem, yet as distinct people. While the theory may be interesting, we have seen no evidence to show that they are any different than any other Slavic people who have descended from a common clan that once spoke a common language known as Slavonic.
The Serbs may speak almost exactly the same language as the Croats, but the Serbs use a Cyrillic alphabet much like that of the Russians, while the Croats use the same Latin alphabet as we do in English, with the addition of accent marks. (The Cyrillic alphabet may look a little cumbersome or intimidating at first glance, but if you ever study Slavic languages, you will quickly see that the Cyrillic alphabet works better for representing the sounds of Slavic languages.)
The Serbs are almost by definition Orthodox Christians. While Communism may have thinned the ranks of believers, Serbs who are religious tend to be zealously Eastern Orthodox.
Notice a pattern here? Some Serbs and Albanians get along very well and all Serbs are—as some Albanians are—Eastern Orthodox. Gee, the Western media never connected the dots, but could it be that the Orthodox Christians in the Balkans get along with one another while the Muslims and Orthodox Christians do not?
Who are the Slovenians?
The Slovenians were the first who sought to break off ties with Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They are also a Slavic people and have traditionally been Roman Catholic.
Who are the Bosnians?
Trick question! Anyone who lives in Bosnia can call himself a Bosnian. It does not matter whether he is a Serb, a Croat of a Muslim. However, the Western media has led us to believe that only the Muslims of the Balkans are “Bosnians.” That is very misleading, because it gives the false impression that no one else belongs there! Bosnia is a place that is not named for any specific people.
OK, So Who Are These Bosnian Muslims?
For the most part, Bosnian Muslims are descended from Serbs who converted to Islam when the Turks ruled most of the Balkans. They tend to have very Serbian surnames and many of their customs are close to those of the Serbs. Bosnian Muslims speak the same language as do the Serbs and the Croats in Bosnia. One woman from Belgrade told us that, from their point of view, Bosnians all have the same accent. She likened it to the “Hillbilly accent” of Appalachia.
We can expect that some Croats and other people in the area also converted to Islam during the rule of the Ottoman Turks, as life was far easier for Muslims under Turkish rule than it was for non-Muslims.
Roma People or “Gypsies”
Another important ethnic group in the Balkans are the Roma people. We have called them “Gypsies” for centuries, but the conventional wisdom considers that word a pejorative. So, the common trend is to call them “Roma.” But that term is confusing for some; the natural reaction is to think or Rome and Italian people, or perhaps Romania, when we hear that word. (More on the origins of the Roma here.)
The Roma people are scattered throughout the Balkans and other parts of Europe. They blend in particularly well in Serbia and seem to be part of the Serbian landscape. (For instance, Marija Serifovic, the winner of the Eurovision 2007 song contest, is Roma.) But this is not the case where radical KLA Albanian Muslims have taken control. To them, the Roma, the Serbs and the Jews, or for that matter, anyone other than Albanian Muslims, might as well be one people.
What About the Other . . . ?
Yes, there is a whole litany of other ethnic groups in the Balkans. In Yugoslavia alone there are a number of different remnants of earlier populations. For example, there are still Turks and Germans living there, as well as small distinct tribes, especially in the hill country, We cannot list them all, much less discuss them.
Why Did Yugoslavia Break Up?
The real question should be: why was Yugoslavia put together in the first place? Yugoslavia was an artificial country put together after World War I. It was much like Czechoslovakia. Neither country existed before the 20th century began, and neither was to survive the 20th century intact.
Slavs and Slaves
Both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had another thing in common; the majority in both countries were Slavic people. Prior to World War I, the only two places in Europe where Slavic people had the opportunity to live without being under the rule of someone else’s major empire were Russia and Serbia. The rest were under foreign domination.
Slavic people did not enjoy a very good image in Western Europe and North America. To this day, we have Polish jokes as a remnant of days when all Slavic people where considered inferior.
How inferior where they? So inferior that the English word “slave” is based on the Slavic word “Slav.” It means glorious in most Slavic languages; however, in English and other western languages, it meant, “these people may have white skin, but they are only fit for use as human chattel.” (Very loose translation, but you get the drift.) The Serbs, for example where slaves to the Turks before Columbus sailed to America. Many remained in bondage to the Turks until the end of World War I. That is twice as long as any African people were enslaved in North America!
Serbia, being free for a number of years prior to World War I, was ready to have other Serbs who had been part of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Turkish empires to join them in their independent and self-governing nation. However, the victorious World War I Allies had considerable clout in the destiny of 20th Century European people. The Czechs, who longed for independence from the Hapsburg crown for centuries “decided” that they just love to share their newfound independence with their Slovak neighbors who had been in a similar situation. It made a lot of sense to their cultures and heritages were similar.
Serbs, Croats, Slavic peoples of Muslim faith, Slovenians and other Slavs living south of Hungary had less in common. However, they “decided” that a nice big Yugoslavia, a land of the southern Slavs, might be nicer than smaller independent Slavic nations, especially from the viewpoint of fending off foreign incursions. While past migrations and geography might have made it more difficult for those smaller nations to agree on their actual borders, the seeds of much future destruction were sown at that time.
Breaking Up Yugoslavia and Forming a New One
As soon as the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia during the Second World War, the glue that held the first Yugoslavia disappeared. Many Croats and nearly all of the Islamic people in Southern Europe sided with the Axis powers. Pro-Communist Partisans lead by Josip Broz Tito and anti-Communist Chetniks lead by Draza Mihailovich (please don’t confuse that name with the name Milosevic) made war against the Nazis, and sometimes each other, throughout the Balkans. In addition to their battlefield heroics, the Chetniks saved hundreds of downed Allied flyers including over 500 American airmen.
While the Partisans were Communists of every ethnic stripe, including many Serbs, the Chetniks were nearly 100% Serbian. To this day, Mihailovich’s status amongst Serbian Orthodox Christians, especially those living outside of Serbia, is nearly that of sainthood. Winston Churchill considers his worst mistake of the war was withdrawing his support from Mihailovich and giving it to Tito. After the war, Tito came to power, captured Mihailovic, tried him on some trumped-up charges, and had him executed. The West did nothing to support this hero who had saved so many American lives and who had also played a vital part in tying up the Nazi war machine.
But, after the war, Tito and company put together a new Yugoslavia. Tito felt that a strong Yugoslavia meant a weak Serbia and vice versa. So, Serbs were forced to hide their identity and call themselves “Yugoslavian.” Of course, under Communist rule, church involvement of any kind was discouraged. So, the Serbs were hit with a triple whammy. First, their beloved war hero was executed. Second, they were told not to call themselves “Serbs.” Finally, they were discouraged from participating in their Orthodox faith, which was part and parcel of their ethnic identity.
Many Croats needed to hide their former Nazi ties from the Tito government, but the U.S. spared any Nazi Croats in their custody, as they were consider necessary to help combat Communism. The other minorities were not as greatly affected after the war. So, the world got used to a mosaic Yugoslavia that made studying World War I history difficult, as hardly anyone knew where Serbia actually was.
The Tito Regime
While the hardcore Western position was “the only good Commie is a dead Commie,” there always seemed to be an exception for Yugoslavia. Maps of Europe divided nations into those aligned with the West and those aligned with the Communist bloc. There were two exceptions; Albania, considered to be aligned for a time with Communist China, and Yugoslavia, which was purported to be Communist but somehow neutral in the struggle between Washington and Moscow.
For decades, American folk propagandist Paul Harvey would sing the praises of Tito on a regular basis. Mr. Harvey claimed that Tito, and only Tito, had the wisdom to keep the ethnic peoples of living together in harmony. It is funny that Mr. Harvey did not have the same praises for Fidel Castro, who used some of the same brutal tactics that Tito employed. Perhaps Castro just wasn’t brutal enough of a dictator to make Mr. Harvey’s list of great leaders. Having interviewed a number of both Cuban expatriates (including former political prisoners of Castro) and immigrants from the Balkans who lived through the Tito era, Tito was far worse than Castro. Ever hear of Castro imprisoning someone for calling himself a “Cuban”? Well, if one of Tito’s people would have caught you describing yourself as “Serb,” a cell could very well have been waiting for you.
Death of Tito, Birth of Violence
It did not have to be that way, but too many outside forces wanted to take advantage of a post-Tito Yugoslavia. Seeds of discontent were sown everywhere in Yugoslavia. The Slovenians were the first to opt out of Yugoslavia. Located on extreme northeastern part of Yugoslavia, its geographic importance was minimal. However, it opened the door for a complete breakup of the entire Yugoslavian state.
In 1992, Bosnia became a hot spot. Unlike Slovenia, Bosnia was in the heart of Yugoslavia. While there was no clear majority, the Bosnian Muslims were a significant portion of the population. (Remember, these are descendants of members of other ethnic groups, primarily Serbs, who had long ago converted to Islam. So they look much like other European people.) The Serbs represented a significant portion of the population, as well. While the Croats were a smaller portion of the population, the were, however, much closer to the part of Yugoslavia that is now called “Croatia.” While their percentage of the population may have been the smallest, they lived closer to the “center of gravity” of their own ethnic group than did the Serbs. Unfortunately, too many Serbs living in Serbia tended to look down on all residents of Bosnia, including their Serbian cousins, in much the same was as too many Americans belittle Appalachian-Americans - as merely a bunch of “Hillbillies.”
Well-organized Muslim propaganda bombarded the West while Roman Catholics Croats, Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Muslims fought a three-way religious war against each other. American, being a land that has grown weak in faith, was quick to see it as an ethnic struggle. Since the Croats had some Roman Catholic support—including a fake appearance of the Virgin Mary—they were able to create some positive propaganda of their own. The Serbs, having few fellow Orthodox Christians in the West, very little money to invest in promoting their own image, and only moderate support from Serbia proper, got almost no sympathy in the West.
That Cyrillic alphabet did not help either. Too many of us remember seeing Cyrillic letters on Russian signs during the Cold War, and we still don’t get warm fuzzy feelings when we see any people using a similar alphabet now.
Ending the War in Bosnia
In 1995, the Dayton Accords were signed creating two new entities, a Republic for Bosnian Serbs and a new country for both Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats - not as independent states, but as parts of yet another artificial, foreign-imposed federation. Neither the Muslims, nor the Roman Catholic Croats were too happy about having the same country, but after three years of a three-way war, it was about the best they could hope for. Not everyone is too happy with the Bosnian Serbian Republic either, as it has been forbidden to join the rest of Serbia.
The man the West considered instrumental in shaping the Dayton Accords was Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. Funny, how quickly the US turns on its friends. Not that we are equating the two, but remember what happened to Draza Mihailovich?
Wrapping Things Up
Hopefully, this will clear up some of the confusion about the Balkans. This is only Part I. We will continue. In future articles, we plan to address the Kosovo War, early Balkans History and other issues. We will read all feedback and may tailor future articles to what we read in that feedback.
That said, be advised that we do moderate comments and we do enforce our comment policy. So if your purpose in commenting is to hate on the Serbs, the Jews, the 1389 Blog team, or anybody else, your comments will not be put on public display - and don’t expect us to waste our time explaining why!
If this article seems a little one-sided and simplistic, GOOD! What you have heard about the Balkans in the American media has been extremely pro-Muslim and made to seem overly complicated. Had the truth been known, American foreign policy relating to the Balkans would have been considerably different for the past 60 or even 70 years. Learn the truth and spread it. It is never too late to change course.
READ THE PREVIOUS POST RELATED TO THIS STORY: