Issue 8, Article 18, 17 August 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.
COMMUNITIES. The Islamic Faith Communities in two areas of the
FRYugoslavia met recently to discuss the possibility of forming a new
organisation uniting all the local Islamic communities. Some Muslim leaders in
Belgrade who did not attend the meeting are concerned such a move is
politically motivated. The leaders who called the meeting maintain the desire is
for religious unity though they did mention that the spiritual centre of such a
union would indeed be in Bosnia�s capital Sarajevo.

Thursday 17 August 2000

by Branko Bjelajac, Keston News Service

On 22 July the Islamic Faith Community of Sandzak (the south-western region
of Serbia close to the borders with Kosovo and Montenegro with a Muslim
population of 250,000) held a meeting in the Sandzak capital Novi Pazar and
proposed a union of all Islamic faith communities in the Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia (FRY). The meeting was held after the local Islamic boards in Novi
Sad, Beocin and Subotica, three towns in Serbia's northern province of
Vojvodina, wrote to the Sandzak IFC declaring that the present status of the
Islamic community in the FRY `gives room for numerous manipulations
which, above all, negatively affect our religious life'. They hoped that a new
organisation would retain close links with the Islamic Board in the Bosnian
capital Sarajevo.

In the wake of the break-up of former Yugoslavia in 1991-92, the Islamic Faith
Community was divided into smaller units, and today there are four in the
FRY: Sandzak, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia (Vojvodina province and
Serbia proper).

One senior Muslim, who declined to be identified, told Keston that the move to
unite all the Muslims of the FRY under the Sandzak leadership might be
dangerous and could even lead to a new war. He regards the Sandzak Muslims
as agents of the Bosnians and believes the Sandzak Muslims are aiming to gain
political autonomy from Serbia and to join the Muslim-dominated Bosnian

One of the leaders in IFC Sandzak ENVER UJKANOVIC from Novi Pazar
spoke via telephone to Keston on 16 August about the unity proposal: 'Today
when every city in Yugoslavia has a local Muslim board, it is just and right to
unite and form a visible religious community in this country. We are receiving
positive responses from our local boards but are not yet certain what the
answers from Montenegro and Serbia proper will be.' When asked why Kosovo
was not included in this plan, Ujkanovic responded: 'Our former seat in Serbia
was in Pristina, but now they are tied with Albania and they see no ground for
us to be together.' However, several IFC Sandzak leaders have expressed their
reservations, reproduced in a report of the meeting in the August issue of the
monthly `Glas Islama' (Voice of Islam). One concern was that the local boards
from Vojvodina were founded by and already belong to the IFC Belgrade and
interference from the IFC Sandzak might be counterproductive and seen as a
take-over of some local boards from other IFCs in the FRY. One solution
proposed was to unite all IFCs in the FRY into one body (the status of IFC
Kosovo was not discussed) to be based in Novi Pazar and maintaining close
ties with the IFC of Bosnia and Herzegovina `as the spiritual centre'. It also
concluded that the IFC Sandzak would not abandon the plans even if the IFCs
of Belgrade and Montenegro would have `no ear' for the proposals.

HADZI HAMDIJA EFENDI JUSUFSPAHIC, the Mufti of the Islamic Faith
Community in Belgrade and of the IFC of Serbia proper, as well as Vice-
President of the World Islamic Federation for the Quran, regards with concern
any potential loss of authority over the Vojvodina communities, stressing that
the Belgrade IFC founded the communities in Novi Sad and Beocin only a few
years ago and still gives them support. `We bought houses for their meetings
and developed their boards,' the mufti told Keston in Belgrade on 7 August.
`When I became the Mufti in Belgrade in 1978 there was no structure and no
organisation for our believers in Serbia proper. So far, we have built several
mosques and meeting houses and here we are building a madrassah [Islamic
college] with a developing network of local boards in the towns and cities of
Serbia.' The mufti was proud of having been able to maintain good relations
with the government and with the Orthodox Church in Serbia, `which I count
very positive in light of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as
well'. He added that after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia the Islamic
community in Serbia proper realised that it needed its own IFC and three years
ago one was founded in the city of Nis of which he was elected leader.

Mufti Jusufspahic told Keston that he found it hard to believe that the initiators
of the new body were `serious', pointing out that there are only two men in the
local IFC board in Beocin. `I think that the true initiative comes from
somewhere else, but I have no proof. It is my assumption that they desire to
develop closer ties to Bosnia, and this has political connotations to me.'
However, Mufti Jusufspahic declared that he supported `every initiative that
desires greater unity of the Muslim believers and IFCs in and within the FRY'.

It is estimated that there are currently about 2.5 million Muslims in the FRY of
various ethnicities, including Albanians, Slav Muslims (who are defined as a
separate ethnic group), Roma and Turks. Those living in Sandzak desire to call
themselves Bosniaks (from Bosnia) and aspire to greater unity with the
Bosnian IFC. (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.