Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Confrontation Over Ferhadija Mosque

Temperatures rise in Banja Luka over plans by an Islamic organisation to rebuild Ferhadija mosque without the necessary permits
By Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic

Plans to begin rebuilding work on the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka next month have provoked a bitter confrontation between the project's backers and the Republika Srpska authorities.


The Bosnian Islamic Community announced on August 8 it would go ahead with the rebuilding work, with or without the necessary permits from the local authorities. The statement came in support of Banja Luka's mufti, Edhem Camdzic, who had earlier stated his determination to begin work this summer.


The Ferhadija mosque, built in 1579, was destroyed when Bosnian Serb forces bulldozed the building in May 1993. The site had been one of Europe's most beautiful heritage sites, protected by UNESCO.


Between 1992 and 1993 Bosnian Serb forces destroyed some 600 mosques, including 16 in Banja Luka. Before the war the city was home to 175,000 people, of which 30,000 were Muslim. Banja Luka is now capital of Republika Srpska and only 3,000 Muslims remain.


Mufti Camdzic has been calling for the reconstruction of the site for years, complaining the city's Muslims have nowhere left to worship. Some in the Bosnian Muslim community have labelled the project "the priority of priorities."


But the former mayor of Banja Luka, Djordje Umicevic, believes the rebuilding of Ferhadija would represent "a poke in the eye to the Serbian people."


The Ferhadija site had a deep religious, cultural and architectural value for Bosnia's Muslims. But for those expelled from Banja Luka in particular, its reconstruction would mark the possibility of return to their pre-war homes.


The rebuilding project sits atop a simmering controversy over property ownership in general. Much of the property owned by Banja Luka's now absent Muslims is currently occupied by Bosnian Serbs, many of whom were forced from their homes elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serb occupants are now extremely reluctant to return the property to its pre-war owners and face displacement themselves once again.


The request to the town's authorities for permission to rebuild the mosque received no response, despite instructions from the Bosnian human rights court in June 1999 for local authorities to give the go ahead for the reconstruction of four mosques, including Ferhadija.


Wolfgang Petrisch, the United Nations High Representative in Bosnia, added his support to Mufti Camdzic's campaign during a recent visit to Banja Luka.


"Ferhadija has to be reconstructed, it is a prerequisite that is not negotiable," Petrisch said. He added the works would be part of the broader project of implementing the Dayton Accords, which includes facilitating the return of displaced persons to their original homes.


Petrisch added implementation would "strengthen the Republika Srpska" given the Accords recognise the entity as one of two equal partners.


Thomas Miller, the United States Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina said, "the time for conversations has run out."


But resistance within the Bosnian Serb authorities remains strong. Dragoljub Davidovic, the present mayor of Banja Luka, said, "I do not accept manipulation and blackmail. Especially not when they contribute to rising tension and disturb the peace." The mayor said the authorities were not against the project in principal, but only against the decision to start work without the necessary permission.


With general elections looming in November, Republika Srpska politicians are clearly concerned granting permission for mosque reconstruction could be a vote loser.


A Banja Luka shop assistant said, "That mosque was destroyed so that the Muslims would understand they are not welcome in this town. Why do they think that has changed now? Because it is peace and foreigners make us live together again with them?! It all only upsets me!"


Rada Djuric, a Banja Luka pensioner, said people in the town have more pressing problems to deal with.


"In this hot August weather most of the people from Banja Luka do not think about destroyed mosques," Djuric said. "Pensioners are on the streets to demand regular payments of their miserably small pensions...There are so many problems in this country still to be resolved that I am not sure reconstruction of any houses of worship, even if one wants them, should get their turn soon."


But opinion among Serbs in Banja Luka is by no means uniform. One 28-year-old woman said, "On that night in 1993, as soon as heard the explosion, I said to myself - that's Ferhadija. I was honestly sorry they had destroyed it. I grew up next to it"


Milan Vasic, 47, also from Banja Luka said, "It was one of the major mistakes we will always be ashamed of, even those of us who had nothing to do with its destruction."


Milorad Dodik, Prime Minister of Republika Srpska and often described as pro-Western, said, "Ferhadija can only be discussed after the November elections." Dodik added he would not permit the rebuilding work to go ahead without a licence.