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Bosnia's religious communities
Interreligious celebration in the madrasa of Travnik

Bosnia and Herzegovina is marked by its religious diversity. Most people of Orthodox faith consider themselves Serbs, most Bosnian Catholics regard themselves as Croats, and most Bosnians of Islamic faith call themselves Bosniaks.

As Nusret Avdibegovic, the Mufti of Travnik points out, “In Bosnia there was always a sense of bonding during religious feast days, no matter if it was a Muslim, Catholic or an Orthodox one. Whoever lives here will confirm this for you."

Vladika Grigorije, one of the leaders of the five Serb-Orthodox Episcopates of Bosnia, notes that:

"It is characteristic of Bosnia, that mosques, churches – Roman-Catholic and Orthodox – and synagogues have been built immediately next to each other. Such examples exist in almost every important town of Bosnia and Herzegovina … Inter-religious life was possible, and people were able to live together in different times. That process continues here already for 600 years.”

Orthodox and Catholic churches in Sarajevo. Photo: Alan Grant
Vladika Grigorije. Photo:

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Bosnian korida. © 2008 pre tv. All rights reserved.

Bosnia's religious history is a story both of cooperation and rivalry. By the time the Ottomans gained control of most of Bosnia (in 1463) and Herzegovina (in the 1480s), the Slavonic tribes which populated Bosnia were already divided by religion. In 1054, when the Great Schism divided the Christian Church, the Balkans became the front line between the Greek-Eastern Byzantine and Latin-Western Roman Christian cultures. The Serbs had achieved independent status (autocephaly) among the Orthodox churches in 1219. The Franciscans had been present in Bosnia since 1291 – by 1463 they had 16 monasteries.

The "Cajnice Beauty"- oldest pre-Ottoman icon from 14th century. Photo:

Owing to the increasing influence of the Ottomans in the Balkans since the 1380s, Bosnia was to come into contact with Islam well before its conquest by the Ottomans in 1463. Islam found support among the local Slavonic population – a large number converted to Islam. The historian Andras Riedlmayer described the spread of Islam in Bosnia:

"Many Bosnians (for both spiritual and social reasons) dropped their allegiance to the weak and disorganized Christian churches and adopted the triumphant faith of the Islamic conquerors. The spread of Islam was aided by itinerant Muslim popular preachers […] who taught a fairly broad-minded and inclusive form of Islam that allowed Bosnians to adapt their old traditions to the new faith. The Ottoman sultans and their local governors embellished Bosnia's towns and cities with splendid mosques and established pious endowments that supported schools, Islamic seminaries, libraries, orphanages, soup-kitchens and almshouses.

Many Muslim Bosnians rose to join the ranks of the Ottoman ruling elite as soldiers, statesmen, Islamic jurists and scholars; not a few attained the highest posts in the Empire. Within Bosnia, a distinctive Bosnian Muslim culture took form, with its own architecture, literature, social customs and folklore. […] Ottomans were tolerant of the non-Muslim minorities, allowing them full freedom to worship, live and trade as they pleased. At the same time, non-Muslims were subject to higher tax-rates and most civil and military offices of the Empire were reserved for Muslims."

(A Brief History of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Andras Riedlmayer)

The Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque built in 1531 and the Sahat Kula clock built by initiative of Gazi Husrev, Sarajevo. Photo:

The Bridge over the Drina River, built by initiative of the Ottoman Grand Vizier, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha in 1566-1571

The arrival of the Ottomans in 1463 did not lead to extinction of the Christian faith. Though the Serb-Orthodox Church was left without a Patriarch after 1463, it was revived in 1557 by the Ottoman Grand Vizier, (Sokollu) Mehmed Pasha. Mehmed came from the Sokolovi family of Orthodox Christians, who lived in Bosnia. Over time, no less than three of Mehmet's close relatives were successively appointed Patriarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church, thereby assuring Serb support for the Ottoman cause.

Serb Orthodox Monastery Gomionica near Banja Luka, 16th century - Serb Orthodox Church of the Holy Archangels, Sarajevo, 16th century. Photo:

In 1463 Sultan Mehmed II "the Conqueror" issued a decree, in which he guaranteed the Bosnian Franciscans the right to live in peace and freedom in the Ottoman Empire. The decree – called the Ahdnama – serves as a famous example of religious tolerance in the Ottoman Empire.

According to the British historian, Noel Malcolm, Muslims were a majority in Bosnia by the end of the sixteenth century and start of the seventeenth century: "Although Bosnia was ruled by Muslims, one could hardly call it an Islamic state." (A History of Bosnia, Noel Malcolm, 1996, p 49)

Ahdnama, 1463, kept in the Franciscan Convent in Fojinica, BiH

However, there was also pressure on both the Catholic (Franciscan) and Serb Orthodox Churches. In 1516 a decree forbade the Franciscans to erect new buildings. Five monasteries in NE Bosnia closed in the 1580s. The Serb Patriarchate was abolished by the Ottomans in 1766, after it advocated Serb troops joining Habsburg forces.

Catholic fortunes improved after 1878, when the Ottoman Empire was forced to hand over Bosnia and Herzegovina to Austria-Hungary. The Pope approved the creation of the ecclesiastical province of Sarajevo, and the Franciscans received the Sees of Mostar and Banja Luka. More colonists came from Austro-Hungary to Bosnia to settle in the Posavina area and to start businesses in Bosnian towns.

Cathedral of Jesus' Heart, built 1889

June 2008

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