Saturday, February 24

Orthodox Christmas: in Mostar, the reconstruction of an Orthodox church is a sign of unity

Mostar’s rich skyline, with mosques and Catholic church towers looming above buildings and facing a towering mountain range, now once again features the towers of an elegant Orthodox church, perched on a hill on the east side. of the city, after it was destroyed during the brutal war in the city almost 30 years ago.

The 19th-century Holy Trinity Cathedral is not yet ready for Mass and will not host an Orthodox Christmas liturgy on January 7, two weeks after Christmas Day is celebrated in most of Western and Central Europe.

This will be the 29th consecutive Christmas that the Orthodox worshipers from the Herzegovina region, the southern half of Bosnia, will not gather at the church that served as the main temple for that part of the country.

“We will serve the liturgy in all the other churches in and around the city, but the works that are underway and the cold weather make it simply impossible to do it there,” Duško Kojić, a Mostar parish priest or pastor, told Euronews. the offices of the Eparchy of Zahumlje, about 150 meters downhill from the temple.

Eparchies are territorial provinces or dioceses of the Orthodox Church, governed by a bishop, and each has a cathedral or “saborni hram”, generally the most representative or largest church of the largest city in the region, as its seat.

The Eparchy of Zahumlje, Herzegovina and the Littoral is based in Mostar and oversees the Herzegovina region, as well as parts of Dalmatia in neighboring Croatia and a small section of Montenegro.

The temple is included in the list of UNESCO world heritage sites and is located a short walk from the old town that leads to the most famous landmark in the city, the Old Bridge with steep arches.

It was the largest Orthodox church in the Balkans at the time of its construction.

During the 1992-1995 war it was turned into rubble.

It was first bombed in early June 1992, then seven days later it was set ablaze and its bell towers toppled. Eventually the remaining walls were blown up.

This forced the Eparchy to choose another church as its main temple, and it chose the more modest Temple of the Holy Transfiguration at Trebinje, some 135 kilometers south of Mostar, as a substitute.

Centuries of history shattered during the war

Before the conflict, Mostar was home to a dizzying variety of cultures. The city was plunged into ethnic conflict, with civilians persecuted and forced into massive relocations.

Today, the two parts of the city that are divided by the deep blue waters of the Neretva River also mark the dividing line between its two main ethnic groups: the western part of Mostar became predominantly Bosnian Croats and the eastern part in mostly Bosnians.

The church was not the only UNESCO-protected city monument that was destroyed. Much of Mostar’s historic center, known for its slippery cobbled streets lined with artisan shops, was badly damaged.

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Croatian forces in Bosnia also bombed and tore down the Old Bridge, a monument that became famous throughout the former Yugoslavia for frequently appearing in movies and music videos.

The number of Bosnian Serbs also decreased considerably. What used to make up nearly a fifth of the city’s population according to the 1991 census fell to about 4,400 people or 4.2% in 2013.

Reconstruction work on the church began just 18 years after its destruction, in 2010. Unlike many other places of worship that are often tied exclusively to one ethnic group, Mostar’s Orthodox Cathedral was a much-loved landmark whose rebuilding was delayed by politics and not by the opposition. of the local community.

“If you talk to people in Mostar of any denomination or ethnicity today, you will see a great feeling of sorrow for the destruction of the church in all of them,” Kojić said. He explains that this is what makes “Mostar what it is”, unlike various communities in other conflicts that have maintained their divisions.

“We, as citizens of Mostar, do not feel any kind of division between us. And we do not feel in danger in any way, shape or form, “he said. “Politicians create this image of us divided and facing constant problems. They propagate that for their own benefit. “

One of the most illustrative stories about its reconstruction, Kojić notes, concerns its bell tower. Three people from Mostar, a Serb, a Croat and a Bosnian, approached the church to donate money for the reconstruction of the bell tower.

“They came to us and insisted as truly religious people to remain anonymous; the highest form of love is to do a good deed without anyone knowing, without anyone patting you on the shoulder.”

“So we thought about what to do with your donation and decided that the three clocks that appear on the bell tower will now show the time in ancient Roman, Arabic and Church Slavic numerals. And the church and the city would be less beautiful if we didn’t now have those three different clocks, ”emphasizes Kojić.

The largest Orthodox church in the Balkans

Although the Zahumlje eparchy historically had its headquarters elsewhere, it was moved to Mostar as the largest city in the region in the late 18th century.

The eparchy needed a large and luxurious church as the main temple, something that the city did not present until that time.

The local faithful organized a campaign to raise funds among themselves, and its construction began in 1863. It was built in record time, around 1873.

“It is a testament to the golden age of the city and the presence and wealth of the local Serbian population,” explains Kojić.

“The size of the temple is decided according to the number of people who attend the service. And the location was chosen so that you can see it from any entrance to the city, both to the west and to the south and north ”.

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Mostar, a commercial center located in the vicinity of three countries and very close to the Adriatic Sea, wanted to use the church in its constant rivalry with the country’s capital, Sarajevo.

“They [citizens] They said we have the money and the location, but they also came up with a lawsuit. And the demand was to allow them to make the church bigger than the one in Sarajevo ”.

Permission was granted and both Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire made donations for its construction.

In addition to the faithful of the city who financed the construction of the church, other citizens of all ethnic groups also helped.

“It took them 10 years to build it. Now it has taken more than 11 to bring it back, and we still have no idea when it will be finished. “

“Building it so fast without the mechanization or building materials that we have today tells you about the kind of love and unity they showed while building the temple,” he said.

“There were people from the nearby villages who were assigned tasks: one village was in charge of fetching the water from the Neretva, while another was preparing lunch for the workers.”

“I think it’s a good kind of rivalry, which forces you to improve.”

The old town church, located just behind the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, was also the site of the country’s first coeducational school.

Bosnian poet laureate Aleksa Šantić, famous for his poems about Mostar and eternalized as the author of one of the most famous songs in the country’s traditional musical genre, sevdah, learned to read and write there.

‘You faithful Orientals’

The Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the many Eastern Orthodox churches in the world whose differences in practices and doctrines compared to those of other Christian denominations, such as Catholicism or Protestantism, are relatively unknown in the West and are less prominent in popular culture. .

After the Great Schism of 1054 divided the main faction of Christianity into two distinct churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, due to ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes, the two went completely different paths.

While the Roman Catholic churches in different countries remained united and led by their headquarters in the Vatican, the various branches of the Orthodox Church were much less connected and centralized.

This meant that the Roman Catholic Church could, over time, change its doctrine and practices more easily and administer the changes uniformly. Each of the Orthodox churches kept its own rituals and ceremonies largely intact for centuries.

Besides being different from Catholic rites, they can also vary greatly even from one region to another.

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The Serbian Orthodox custom of burning an oak sapling or badnjak on Christmas Eve, says Kojić, which purports to represent the way the manger was kept warm at the birth of Jesus in Nazareth, “would probably surprise” the faithful of the Orthodox Church. Russian .

At the same time, some traditions seeped into more than one religion.

“So in Herzegovina, Bosnian Catholics also burn badnjak on Christmas Eve,” he explains.

But sometimes even the locals get confused.

The invitation to their annual concert, which often features both church choirs and well-known rock bands, can sometimes be a scratch.

The root of the “confusion” lies in the fact that the Serbian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar, promulgated by edict of Julius Caesar in 45 BC. C., in opposition to the Gregorian calendar in common use, introduced by the Catholic Pope Gregory XIII in 1582..

“The difference in the calendars means that although Christmas takes place on January 7 according to the Gregorian calendar, it still refers to the holiday of the previous year according to the Julian calendar.”

“So when we send out the invitations for the 2021 Christmas Concert, and the card says the event will take place on January 7, 2022, people get confused and call us to clarify it,” he laughs.

Walking among bags of cement and construction tools, he is greeted with joy by a group of construction workers working hard in freezing temperatures.

The façade was completed earlier this year, Kojić notes, but the interior work will take some time, especially since the frescoes that will cover the walls and depict Orthodox Christian saints, a feature of all Orthodox churches, require a significant amount. of time. do it correctly.

“We suggested that using modern materials would make it faster and cheaper, but UNESCO refused,” he says as workers deftly scale the scaffolding that covers the interior of the church.

“So now we have to wait,” and that’s fine with him, explains Kojić.

Most important to Kojić and the other parish priests who serve the cathedral are the citizens of Mostar who will come to visit once it is finished.

“The church is worthless if it is just a nice building. The people who come to it turn it into a church ”.

And it is open to all its citizens, regardless of their faith, he emphasized.

“We are eager to welcome the Bosnians and Croats from Mostar as well; Christmas will never be Christmas without them ”, he concluded.

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