For the Love of God: Faith-Based Nonprofits in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Shawn Teresa Flanigan

Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of several states that emerged from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It is situated in southeastern Europe, bordered by Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia. In recent years the name Bosnia and Herzegovina brings to mind images of Serb campaigns of “ethnic cleansing” that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and displaced millions more in the early 1990s.1 In the face of the humanitarian disaster of the Yugoslav Civil War, a large number of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) began to operate in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The end of Communism in the former Yugoslavia created a new civic space for voluntary associations and nonprofit organizations, and in response to the great needs created by the war, many local social service NGOs, both faith-based and secular, also began to emerge in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ethno-Religious Identity

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s population of 4.5 million is composed of Bosniaks (48 percent), Serbs (37.1 percent), Croats (14.3 percent), and others (0.6 percent). Bosniaks are predominantly Sunni Muslim; Serbs, Eastern Orthodox; and Croats, Roman Catholic.2 Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ethnic and religious communities match quite closely: Muslims, 40 percent; Orthodox, 31 percent; and Roman Catholics, 15 percent.3 Other religions (14 percent) include a very small Jewish community and a growing number of Protestant Christians.

Before the civil war Yugoslavia was a federation of eight federal units, including the six republics of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and two autonomous provinces inside Serbia: Kosovo and Vojvodina. While only Slovenia was ethnically homogenous, five of the six republics were inhabited primarily by the ethnic group for which they were named. The exception was Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was ethnically diverse with no single majority group.

Civil War Violence

The Yugoslav Civil War was the worst eruption of violence in Europe since World War II. “The human costs of fighting included about a quarter of a million dead, millions of refugees, mass rapes and other atrocities, and devastation of entire cities and regions.”4 Serbia’s ethnic cleansing policies in Bosnia and Herzegovina were applied through mass murder, torture, and large-scale deportation of civilians with internment in detention or concentration camps.5 Also infamous was the Serbian practice of systematically raping and impregnating women and girls.6

M. Sells characterizes nationalism in the former Yugoslavia as religious, in which fundamentalist versions of Christianity and nationalism “reinforce each other and merge.”7 However, while acknowledging that religious identity is crucially important to understanding the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, most scholars characterize it as an ethnic conflict. Nevertheless, ethnicity and religion in Bosnia and Herzegovina are so intertwined that a religious dimension clearly emerged during the conflict. Much of the violence targeted mosques and churches which were systematically destroyed while outside actors supported those with whom they shared religious ties

Religion, Violence, and NGOs

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, each of the three primary religious communities has a single dominant faith-based social service organization (FBO), while in some instances a few other small, local FBOs have emerged in the same faith community. However, the scope and scale of these local organizations are quite small. Instead, international FBOs, which arrived in the region to provide aid during and following the war, are predominant.9

In many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, an era of Soviet-style Communism destroyed previous traditions of civic engagement and political representation.10 With the notable exception of the International Red Cross, NGOs that provided social services, particularly religious NGOs, did not exist. In its short history, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NGO sector has become quite large, with estimates of the number of its NGOs ranging from several hundred to several thousand. Of such groups registered with the government, the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) estimates that approximately 30 percent have developmental and humanitarian aims.11

The Role of Faith in Social Service NGOs

The following social service NGO table shows the religious identity of the NGOs included in the sample for the present research and the number of interview participants from each faith community. In addition, the percentage of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina belonging to each religious group and the percentage of FBO interview participants from each religious group are included. The sample for the study was somewhat over-representative of Christian organizations (61.1 percent of the sample versus 46 percent of the population).12 Nevertheless, I believe the chart reasonably reflects Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NGO sector, though admittedly less.


The Added Value of Faith

In the United States, proponents of increasing faith-based service delivery argue that FBOs add a desirable moral or spiritual component to services provided, and that they are more effective because their staff and volunteers are more caring and supportive.13 Numerous interview participants from FBOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina likewise believed that religious identity gave added benefits to their NGOs. Thirteen of the 18 interview participants from FBOs enumerated additional benefits they believed their organizations provided, including:

more individualized and compassionate service;•

more highly committed and motivated workers;•

more effective service due to church networks;•

more secure funding and more flexible use of • funding; and

the ability to promote reconciliation.•

One Christian FBO interview participant described the role of faith as follows:

In terms of how we interact with people, I cannot say the other NGOs are bad, and we are the best. No. Everyone is giving very much. But somehow when you feel this in your heart, that this work is given to you by God, maybe you behave a bit different. Maybe your arms are a bit more open, and your heart is a bit more open.

An interview participant from a Muslim FBO also indicated that she believed religion of any sort gave FBO employees more empathy for their clients: 

I believe that religious NGOs have more benefits to give. Any organization that is a religious organization, in any religion, if someone who works there is really a person who believes in God in any way and is true to himself and what he believes, he must be more empathetic because this is originally from religion.

More Effective Social Service Due to Church Networks

Three interview participants from Catholic FBOs believed church networks allowed them to be more effective in their work. As one interview participant explained:

It’s wonderful because [the local Catholic NGO] has some grassroots networks, and we couldn’t reach those people without those grassroots networks. So that is a real benefit to being a Catholic organization and having a Catholic partner, because they have those parish structures. This gives us an advantage over some other foreign organizations who maybe come in and don’t have any natural partner to work with as soon as they arrive.

More Secure and Flexible Funding

Another interesting benefit mentioned by three of the interview participants from Catholic FBOs and one interview participant from another Christian FBO was that, because their financial support came from religious sources, they believed their funds were more secure and they could use them more flexibly. One interview participant explained,

We are fortunate that we are able to raise money from people in [our home country], many of whom are Catholic, so we don’t have to go out and fund-raise for my salary. I can allocate my time in a much more flexible manner. There are some organizations that ran their projects here on grant only, and so when their grant ran out, they had to close their doors.

Ability to Promote Reconciliation

A final benefit FBO interview participants mentioned was that they thought their religious identity allowed them to promote understanding and reconciliation among Bosnia and Herzegovina’s different ethno-religious groups. As one interview participant from a Catholic FBO noted:

We as a faith-based organization are showing that we are not only working for Catholics but also for other groups, and I think this is something very special to show people that you don’t only look at your own group, but that you are trying to support people in need. Honestly, I think that is one of the most important things we do here.

While participants from Muslim FBOs also spoke of the ways that inclusiveness in outreach could help promote greater understanding, they also spoke of the important role their FBO needed to play in improving impressions of Muslims in light of terror attacks in recent years. As one participant explained:

You know, in the world generally people think bad about Islam because of all these terrorist attacks. But we just try to explain the rules of Islam, because of course every Muslim is not a good Muslim. We have to make a difference between bad people who happen to be Muslims and what they do, and what Islam really is.

It is interesting to note that interview participants from Orthodox FBOs were the only participants who did not see any added value from the religious orientation of their organization. This was the case even when interview participants were asked directly about any benefits they felt faith brought to their organization Editor’s note: The conclusion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report.


1 S. Kaufman, Modern Hatreds: The Symbolic Politics of Ethnic War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

2 Ibid.

3 CIA, Factbook Bosnia-Herezgovina (Washington, D.C.: CIA, 2006).

4 Kaufman, Modern Hatreds, 165.

5 H. Rae, State Identities and the Homogenisation of Peoples (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

6 B. Allen, Rape Warfare; The Hidden Genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); A. Stiglmayer, Mass Rape: The War against Women in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

7 M. Sells, The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 89.

8 Rae, State Identities; S.M. Saideman, The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy, and International Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

9 International Council of Voluntary Agencies of Bosnia and Herzegovina, The ICVA Directory of Humanitarian and Development Agencies in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sarajevo: International Council of Voluntary Agencies, 2005.

10 A. Fagan, “Taking Stock of Civil-Society Development in Post-Communist Europe: Evidence from the Czech Republic,” Democratization 12 (No. 4, 2005), 528-47.

11 ICVA, ICVA Directory.

12 The figure for the percent of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina that is Christian is based on CIA World Factbook (2006) estimates of Catholic and Orthodox populations in the country. However, an additional 14 percent of the population is categorized as “other.” Due to a small preexisting Protestant Christian population and the influx of Christian missionaries following the war, this figure is likely to be partially, if not predominantly, composed of other Christian denominations. Therefore, the total population of Christians in Bosnia and Herzegovina is likely to be higher than 46 percent.

13 M. Chaves and W. Tsitsos, “Congregations and Social Services: What They Do, How They Do It, and with Whom,” Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Quarterly 30 (No. 4, 2001), 660-83; H. Ebaugh, J. Saltzman Chafetz, and P. Pipes, “Faith-Based Social Service Organizations and Government Funding: Data from a National Survey,” Social Science Quarterly 86 (No. 2, 2005), 273-92; P. Frumkin, On Being Nonprofit: A Conceptual and Policy Primer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002); S.V. Monsma, When Sacred and Secular Mix: Religious Nonprofit Organizations and Public Money (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996): A.L. Sherman, “Cross Purposes: Will Conservative Welfare Reform Corrupt Religious Charities?,” Policy Review (1995), 58-63; J. Singletary and C. Collins, “The Rest of the Story: The Perspective of Faith-Based Program Participants,” paper presented at the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, Los Angeles, CA, 2004.

Edited excerpts published with permission from Shawn Teresa Flanigan, “For the Love of God: Ethno-Religious Identity and Faith-Based Nonprofit Service Provision in Contexts of Violence,” Ph.D. dissertation, State University of New York at Albany, 2007.

Shawn Teresa Flanigan is an assistant professor in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, San Diego, California.