#page1aBalkans has long been a region of complex history and geopolitical
significance. Religious identity is one thread in its historical tapestry, and
in many contexts today, it is closely interwoven with ethnic identity. Thus,
for example, to be Serbian is to be Orthodox and to be Croatian is to be
Catholic.1 Muslim communities also make up significant parts of the
religious populations— from Kosovo to Bosnia, Albania to Bulgaria, the face of
Islam takes on various expressions based on context, history, and culture. The
next two pieces will briefly highlight a few issues in just three different
following is an interview with Julijana Mladenovska Tešija, both a senior
lecturer at Evangelical Theological Seminary2 and project
coordinator at the Center for Peace, Non-Violence, and Human Rights3
in Osijek, Croatia. She has also been active in interfaith dialogue for many
Macedonian, Julijana grew up steeped in the tradition of the Macedonian
Orthodox Church, shaped by the beauty, sounds, and colors that are part and
parcel of the tradition. While growing up, she always had a strong inclination
towards the Jesus icon which was on the “male” side of the gender-divided
church, rather than Mary, who was in front of the “female” side. While a
student of philosophy, she wandered from the faith, becoming
“semi-agnostic”—yet even so, she would occasionally visit church. When she did,
she always went to the men’s side so she could be in front of Jesus, praying
directly to him in her own words. In this, she claims she has been Protestant
for a long time, even before the first time she entered a Pentecostal church. Now,
although she feels Protestant, she claims her roots are still deeply mired in
Macedonian Orthodoxy, and therefore tries to capitalize on the strengths of
Melody: I know#page1b Macedonia has a very large Muslim population, and
there is a lot of tension between the Macedonians and Albanian Muslims, living
together on a small piece of land. Growing up, what was your experience with
the Muslim community?
Julijana: I had and have a number of friends who are Albanians. Many
times I have been in the mosques in Macedonia—I love the sound of their melodic
prayers. Macedonian Albanians (that is Albanians living in Macedonia, or
Macedonians of Albanian ancestry) closely connect their identity with Albania
as an idealized country of common origin. Thus, they can be very conservative
in terms of not viewing themselves as “Macedonian” but Albanians striving for
all-Albanian national independence and being fairly closed for interfaith
dialogue. But of course you can find moderate and open-minded people as well
who think in terms of tolerance and co-existence. The Muslims in Osijek,
Croatia are different. My Bosnian Muslim friends in Osijek are really special:
their Imam regularly invites me to pray together with them, and as a woman, I
sit among them and pray in the name of Jesus!
Melody: What else is different about your experience with the
Muslim community in Croatia?
Julijana: In Osijek, the Muslim community is kind of a
potpourri—there are Bosnian Muslims, Albanian Muslims, Roma Muslims, Arab
Muslims, and even some converted Croatian Catholics. Bosnian Muslims make up
the largest number and they influence the whole setting to be more
democratic—Bosnian Muslims tend to be more open. I guess that perhaps Albanian
Muslims from Kosovo would be the most closed off, having in mind the political
situation, their aspirations, etc.
Melody: What has been your experience with interfaith dialogue in
Julijana: We have organized interfaith dialogue seminars almost
every year for the last four years. Apart from that, within one of the subjects
I teach at the Evangelical Theological Seminary (Philosophy of Religion), I
take my students to the Islamic community in Osijek. What I see is that there
are prejudices on both sides that we have to overcome. For example, students
think that Islam is violent in general, and are—at the beginning, when I
announce the possibility for the visit—hesitant to go to the community. Before
going there, I usually ask the students how they would feel about praying in
the Islamic community. They are surprised by that very possibility—at one
point, one person even asked me if Christians can pray in a mosque, to which I
replied by asking if Muslims can pray in any church. That is why our
relationship with the Islamic community in Osijek is special. These prayer
meetings are unique because Christian students can hear the Muslim melodic
prayer, and at the same time can pray in the name of Christ!
the other side, my experience has shown that Muslims also have prejudices
against Christians: We are violent, we consider them as lower class, second
class believers, and not as worthy as Christians are. For some of the Muslims,
this is also the first time to be with Christians in a theological way,
discussing faith issues and hearing us pray.
Melody: You mentioned that the Imam in Osijek invites you to pray
in the mosque, and that you pray in the name of Jesus. How is that possible?
Julijana: Yes, he is special. I have rarely seen someone being so
open-minded and warm-hearted as Enes ef. Poljic. I have one interesting
illustration about the first time we prayed together in their mosque. I had
come to the mosque with an interfaith group of students from the Orthodox
Faculty in Belgrade, Serbia, several Catholics from Osijek, Croatia, some
Muslims from Bosnia (Brcko) and Protestants (Baptists, Pentecostals,
Adventists) from Osijek. I asked the Imam if he would melodically pray for us
in Arabic. He smiled, then paused, and said, “I will gladly, if you will
pray, my dear sister, as well.” I was shocked and suddenly overwhelmed by a
strange feeling of happiness. I heard myself praying inside, “Oh Lord, You
guide me!,” and responded loudly: “I will, if my Orthodox brothers and
sisters pray as well.” They were silent for a moment, then started
whispering between themselves and replied: “Can we sing, an Easter song, for
Christ? And then pray? But only if our Catholic brothers pray too.” The Catholics
smilingly nodded and suddenly, the small mosque was filled with four different
prayers... It was amazing.
Melody: How do you see your Christian faith interacting with your
interfaith dialogue work?
Julijana: For me, being a follower of Jesus Christ means being open
for all differences and seeing others through Christ’s eyes. If you try to see
other believers through the eyes of Christ, you see them as children of God
too. Of course you are not blind to the blind spots in their faith—but those faults
are your stepping stone towards them, your bridge towards them, not a barrier. I
try to understand what their beliefs are... that doesn’t mean that I agree with
them, but I try to understand. That understanding helps me see the believer in
them and see God in them. And by seeing God in them, I do not dare say that God
is not working through them for something for the benefit of His kingdom.
speak about Jesus in the Muslim community... I have prayed in the name of Jesus
in that community many times. I have defended the Triune God. When I am in the
Islamic community and hear them singing and reciting Qur'an , I do not dare to
say that book was not inspired by God... how can I limit God? Can I say that
God has inspired only one book? Can I say that Muhammed is not inspired by God?
But of course, we should be careful in how we read all these books. This is how
I see Jesus—walking and talking to all people regardless of their faith,
accepting and through that acceptance, changing their hearts. Is that
evangelization? I do not know. I just trust God for His guidance that I feel
whenever I am surrounded with different people.
Melody: What, then, is your hope for your Muslim friends?
Julijana: I hope that my Muslim friends will come to know Jesus as
the Son of God. I am not closing the doors that God is opening because I
believe He is the one opening them. I will do my best to be his follower and if
they see Christ through me, if they see even 1/30 of Jesus through who I am, I
will have accomplished everything I need to in my life.
Melody: Thank you Julijana for the important work you are doing in
the Balkans—with the Muslim communities, educating students, and your work at
the Center for Peace.
J. Wachsmuth has been a mission researcher and freelance writer in the Balkans
since 2011. Based in Osijek, Croatia, she also lectures and serves on the
student life team at the Evangelical Theological Seminary. She is a co-founder of the journal, Evangelical
Interfaith Dialogue. You can visit her blog at www.balkanvoices.wordpress.com.
(both inside and outside Croatia) as to whether Croatia can be considered part
of the Balkans.
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Melody J. Wachsmuth earned MAs in both theology and cross-cultural studies from Fuller Seminary. She has lived in Croatia since 2011 as a freelance mission journalist and researcher and is a co-founder of Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue. She blogs at balkanvoices.wordpress.com