AMMAN, Jordan (CNS) — A Franciscan priest who led reconciliation efforts in the midst of violent, sectarian conflict in his native Bosnia-Herzegovina urged Syrian activists to work harder to end the civil war ripping apart their country, saying they hold untapped power.
Addressing about 30 Syrians in a workshop Feb. 24, Father Ivo Markovic encouraged the group to enhance their “soft” power by learning negotiation techniques, using peacebuilding activities among the warring factions and honing their case to present it more effectively to the global audience.
“We were in a very similar situation in Bosnia,” Father Markovic said of the international armed conflict in the Balkans, which drew the United States, Russia and other world powers into a seemingly unending vortex of violence in the 1990s.
“We felt extremely powerless at times, but in such situations, it is important for believers, those with faith, to do something and not allow depression to take over,” he told the Syrians. “If you do something, God will help you. You have to start.”
The activists expressed frustration with the international community’s inability to help end the three-year-old conflict that has seen more than 100,000 people killed, more than 2 million flee the war-ravaged country and another 4.5 million internally displaced, according to the United Nations.
A second round of talks between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition in Geneva Feb. 10-15 failed to achieve any breakthroughs. The refugee crisis, sectarian tensions and Islamic radicalization threaten not just Syria, but the surrounding region.
Father Markovic told the group that they must work both inside and outside Syria to end the fighting.
“It’s your war. Bosnia was in a better position than Syria. No one wants to intervene in Syria, but there are always very good chances on the political level,” the Bosnian Croat priest said, urging the opposition to organize and “mobilize your power.”
“Show that without you, he (Assad) cannot stop the war. You have to convince people to help,” he said.
Father Markovic was speaking from experience. By the time the U.S.-brokered Dayton Agreement ended hostilities in the former Yugoslavia in 1995, nearly 96,000 people had been killed, more than 1 million people had been displaced and six new, independent states had emerged from the war’s ashes.
In a bid to stop the horrors, Father Markovic reached out across religious and ethnic lines to mainly Catholic Croats, Serbs, most of whom were Orthodox Christians, and mainly Muslim Bosnians often at risk to in own life. For his efforts, he received Tenenbaum Peacemakers in Action Award in 1998.
Like many Syrians who have lost family and friends in the civil war, Father Markovic questioned whether he could continue with his reconciliation work after the death of his father.
“My father was killed in war,” he said. “I was in pain for days and began to doubt my peacemaking efforts. But then I understood that it was evil and hatred that killed my father.
He told the Syrians “not to deepen enmity” with their country’s police and army but show them “you are us.”
“Go to Assad’s power base and weaken it,” he said.
Comparing the events in Syria and the Ukraine, where people took to the streets and helped to topple President Viktor Yanukovich in late February, Father Markovic said that although “Ukraine’s president was not as strong as Assad, he had to accept the revolution.”
Father Markovic also issued several challenges to the Syrian opposition.
“I recommended that they have to stop the war, even if it is impossible to remove Assad,” he said, explaining that nonviolent methods could be used to change the Syrian crisis and later lead to Assad’s removal from power.
“I feel that I must explain to the people that nonviolence is stronger than force or actions of war,” he said.
Father Markovic also deplored the rise of Islamic militant fighters in the Syrian conflict, saying such jihadists still posed a problem for some communities in Bosnia.
The Franciscan continues his interfaith work today as coordinator of Pontanima, an interreligious choir based in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Acclaimed as an innovative peacebuilding project, the choir is seen as a major contributor to the country’s cultural life.
“I especially use religious spirituality for healing and reconciling people,” Father Markovic explained. “I have invited people from all religions and beliefs in Bosnia into one symphony of religions. This is not syncretism but just one symphony, different religions, different instruments playing together one music. It’s really a powerful tool in reconciling people.”