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


The rich horizon of Mostar, with mosques and towers of the Catholic churches overlooking the buildings and facing an imposing mountain range, now re-presents the towers of an elegant Orthodox church – perched on a hill above. on the east side of the city — after being 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 the celebration of Christmas Day in most parts of Europe. western and central.

It will be the 29th consecutive Christmas that the Orthodox faithful in the region of Herzegovina, the southern half of Bosnia, will not gather in the church that served as the main temple in that part of the country.

“We will serve the liturgy in all the other churches in and around the city, but the ongoing works and the cold make it simply impossible to do so there,” Duško Kojić, parish or pastor of Mostar, told Euronews. was sitting at Euronews. the offices of the Zahumlje Diocese, about 150 meters below the temple.

Dioceses are provinces or territorial dioceses of the Orthodox Church, governed by a bishop, each with a cathedral or “saborni hram” (usually the most representative or largest church in the largest city in the region) as its seat.

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

The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is within walking distance of the old town, which leads to the city’s most famous landmark, the Old Bridge, with its pointed arch.

It was the largest Orthodox church in the Balkans at the time it was built.

During the 1992-1995 war it became rubble.

It was first bombed in early June 1992, then set on fire seven days later and its bell towers demolished. Finally, the remaining walls were blown up.

This forced the Diocese to choose another church as its main temple, and selected the more modest Temple of the Holy Transfiguration at Trebinje — about 135 miles 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 fell into an ethnic conflict, with civilians persecuted and forced to move en masse.

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 mainly Bosnian Croatian, and the part mostly Bosnian eastern.

The church was not the only landmark in the UNESCO-protected city that was destroyed. Much of the historic center of Mostar, known for its cobbled streets and cobblestones flanked by craft shops, was severely damaged.

Bosnian Croat forces also bombed and demolished the Old Bridge, a monument that became famous throughout the former Yugoslavia for appearing frequently in music movies and videos.

The number of Bosnian Serbs also fell sharply. What once accounted for almost 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 only 18 years after its destruction in 2010. Unlike many other places of worship usually linked exclusively to one ethnic group, Mostar Orthodox Cathedral was a cherished landmark. whose reconstruction was delayed by politics and not by the opposition. of the local community.

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

“As citizens of Mostar, we do not feel any division between us. And we don’t feel in danger of extinction in any way, in any way, “he said. “Politicians create this image of us divided and facing constant problems. They spread it for their own benefit. “

One of the most illustrative stories about its reconstruction, says Kojić, belongs to 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 it, without anyone slapping you in the face. shoulder “.

“So we thought about what to do with your donation and decided that the three clocks on the bell tower will now show the time in ancient Roman, Arab and Slavic ecclesiastical numbers. And the church and the city would be less beautiful if not now. we had these three different watches, ”says Kojić.

The largest Orthodox church in the Balkans

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

The eparchy needed a large, lavish church as its main temple, something the city did not have until then.

The local faithful organized a fundraising campaign among themselves, and construction began in 1863. It was built in record time, in 1873.

“It is a testament to the city’s golden age and the presence and wealth of the local Serb population,” says Kojić.

“The size of the temple is decided based on the number of people attending the service. And the location was chosen so that it could be seen from any entrance of the city, both in the west, in the south and in the north ”.

Mostar, a shopping center located near three countries and very close to the Adriatic Sea, wanted to use the church in its ongoing rivalry with the country’s capital, Sarajevo.

“They [citizens] he said we have the money and the location, but they also came with a demand. 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 to have it built.

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

“It simply came to our notice then. It has taken more than 11 years to get it back, and we still have no idea when it will be finished. “

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

“You have given tasks to people from the nearby villages: one village would carry the water from the Neretva, while another would prepare lunch for the day laborers.”

“I think it’s a good kind of rivalry, that forces you to be better.”

The city’s Old Church, located just behind the Holy Trinity Cathedral, was also home to the country’s first mixed school.

The award-winning Bosnian poet Aleksa Šantić, famous for his poems on Mostar and perpetuated as the author of one of the most famous songs in the country’s traditional music genre, sevdah, learned to read and write there.

“You Eastern Orientals”

The Serbian Orthodox Church is one of the many Eastern Orthodox churches in the world whose differences in practices and doctrines compared to 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 different churches, the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, due to ecclesiastical differences and theological disputes, the two took completely different paths.

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

This made it possible for the Roman Catholic Church to change its doctrine and practices more easily over time and to manage the changes evenly. Each of the Orthodox churches kept its own rituals and ceremonies intact for centuries.

In addition to being different from Catholic rites, they can also vary greatly from region to region.

Kojić says the Serbian Orthodox custom of burning an oak or badnjak on Christmas Eve, with the aim of depicting how the manger was kept warm at the birth of Jesus in Nazareth, “would probably raise some eyebrows” of a faithful of the Russian Orthodox Church. .

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

“Thus, in Herzegovina, Bosnian Catholics also burn badnjak on Christmas Eve,” he said.

But sometimes even the locals are confused.

The invitation to his annual concert, which often includes both church choirs and well-known rock bands, can sometimes come as a surprise.

The root of the “confusion” lies in the fact that the Serbian Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar, promulgated by the edict of Julius Caesar in 45 BC, as opposed to the commonly used Gregorian calendar introduced by the Catholic pope. Gregory XIII in 1582..

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

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

Walking between bags of cement and construction tools, he is cheerfully greeted by a group of construction workers working hard at ice temperatures.

The façade was completed earlier this year, Kojić said, but interior work will take some time, especially as the frescoes covering the walls and depicting Orthodox Christian saints, a feature of all Orthodox churches, take a long time. . do correctly.

“We suggested that the use of current materials would make it faster and cheaper, but UNESCO refused,” he says as workers deftly climbed the scaffolding covering the interior of the church.

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

The most important thing for Kojić and the other rectors who serve the cathedral are the citizens of Mostar who will come to visit it once it is finished.

“The church has no value if it is just a beautiful building. The people who come there make it a church. “

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

“We can’t wait to welcome the Bosnians and Croats of Mostar as well; Christmas will never be Christmas without them,” he concluded.

Every working day, Uncovering Europe offers you a European story that goes beyond the headlines. Download the Euronews app to receive a daily alert for this and other breaking news notifications. It is available on Apple and Android devices.