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

Shawn Teresa Flanigan

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 18 (Winter 2010): 5-8.

Religion as a Service Rendered

One interview participant from a Catholic faith-based organization (FBO) and two interview participants from Muslim FBOs also described religious services that their organizations provided. Participants from Muslim FBOs explained that their organizations offered courses in Islam and the Koran for practicing Muslims, as well as introductory classes in Islam for non-Muslims and non-practicing Muslims. These courses were available to those who chose to enroll and were not incorporated into other types of service provision. The interview participant from a Catholic FBO described masses held for FBO volunteers and also services provided by priests to the ill and prisoners.

Religious Identity and Social Service

Local FBOs from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three primary faith communities provide services primarily to those of their own ethno-religious group, whereas international FBOs and secular NGOs are more inclusive in their assistance. Nine interview participants (one from a local Catholic FBO, all four from Orthodox FBOs, and all four from Muslim FBOs) indicated that the majority of the population they served belonged to their own religious group. These were all local FBOs, with the exception of one interview participant from an international Muslim FBO. All interview participants from non-Catholic Christian FBOs and, by definition, all interview participants from interfaith FBOs indicated that their organizations served ethnically and religiously mixed clientele.

In addition, 21 of 23 interview participants from secular NGOs (91.3 percent) indicated that they served ethnically and religiously mixed recipients. Two interview participants worked with secular NGOs whose specific target population was the Roma (Gypsy) community, since this group is extremely marginalized within Bosnian society.

Of the eight interview participants who indicated that their FBOs serve primarily members of the same religious group, five indicated that they were open to serving all people regardless of their ethno-religious identity. As one interview participant from a Muslim FBO explained:

Because this is a multi-religious country, we are trying to help everyone, but it is true, I cannot say the percentage is very high. It is true that most people we help are Muslims, but we never ask any name or religion. We don’t ask anything.

While most interview participants from Orthodox FBOs did not indicate an openness to helping members of other groups, one interview participant from an Orthodox FBO noted:

It is true that our organization mostly serves Serbs, because since it is part of the Orthodox Church, the Serbs feel like it belongs to them. But we will serve anyone who comes for help. I remember in the beginning Muslims from the neighborhood sometimes came and when we would ask their name they would be afraid, because their name is not a Serb name, so they would be afraid we would send them away. But we always helped them.

Catholic FBOs—Insiders and Outsiders

All three interview participants from international Catholic FBOs mentioned their initial challenges in working with the local Catholic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Whereas local Catholics thought that international Catholic FBOs should give priority to assisting the local Catholic community, these large and highly professionalized relief agencies had policies that ensured services to all regardless of religious affiliation. As one interview participant explained, often the neediest in the community were not Catholics, but members of other groups. While this participant thought that helping those most in need regardless of religion was the most genuine expression of Catholic faith, local Catholics often thought this practice violated the solidarity that international Catholics should share with their co-religionists.

The Role of International FBOs

International Protestant FBOs that previously were unknown in Bosnia and Herzegovina often had an easier time gaining the trust of locals than other religiously or ethnically identified organizations in the country. In contrast, international Catholic organizations in particular faced large hurdles in establishing themselves as inclusive service providers.

Tensions for Bosnian Staff

Tensions in providing services were especially difficult for Bosnian staff members, most of whom were personally affected by the war. Many practical problems seemed to surround communication, such as the existence of taboo topics which were consciously avoided, or drastically different interpretations of past events. These dynamics presented a difficult problem for organizations that were working with war victims and, therefore, needed to be able to openly discuss these topics. One interview participant explained how her colleagues avoid talking about the war:

As professionals, how can we talk with traumatized patients about the war when we can’t even talk about it ourselves? People have these small sentences. They talk about “my war” and “your war,” like “My war was worse,” as in my suffering was worse. As professionals, we are not able to discuss it, so how do we expect ordinary people to communicate, people who were raped or tortured or lost their children?

Another interview participant explained how different narratives of past events caused tensions during a staff training he was conducting:

I was doing my training and it was going really well. But then someone started talking about one concentration camp. This is a place where some huge massacres happened. I mean thousands of people died. And one man from that area said, “No, that wasn’t a concentration camp. That was just a place where people were kept so they would be safe during the war until they could go home.” He said no one died there. I mean, these massacres have been documented by many international groups. There is no doubt that they happened. Thousands of bodies were found. And some people in the training work with people whose family died in that camp. So what can they even say to something like that?

In a context like Bosnia and Herzegovina where people were so broadly affected by the war, ethno- religious identity could not help but come to bear on workers’ perceptions of their responsibilities and their interaction with clients and coworkers. As one interview participant from a Muslim FBO poignantly observed, “We are trying and I think we are successful in cooperation with others. I believe in general all Bosniaks are like this, open to others.” Then, after a pause, “Well, a mother from Srebrenica who saw her husband and sons killed, maybe she cannot feel that way yet.” It should be noted that in July 1995, Serb forces overtook the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica and in five days killed a documented 7,465 Muslim men and boys (H. Brunborg, T. H. Lyngstad, and H. Urdal, “Accounting for Genocide: How Many Were Killed in Srebrenica?,” European Journal of Population 19 [No. 3, 2004], 229-48). The massacre has been characterized as the worst in Europe since World War II. Some researchers place the estimate of deaths as high as 10,000 since almost 40 percent of Bosnians still missing and unaccounted for after the war are from the municipality of Srebrenica.

Inclusive Social Service

While there are anecdotal reports of evangelism by FBO workers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, my data did not produce any evidence of this. It seems that the risk of coercion in providing services is low as well. The presence of and mentoring by international NGOs, particularly international FBOs, seems to have had a beneficial influence both on public opinion in Bosnia and Herzegovina and local NGO inclusiveness in serving clients of all faiths. The Bosnian public has a favorable impression of international Christian FBOs, and hopefully this positive impression can spill over into good will toward the Christian population in general. Perhaps more importantly, in spite of its initial reluctance, the local Catholic FBO in Bosnia and Herzegovina has become the most inclusive of the local FBOs from the country’s three dominant faiths, thanks in no small part to pressure from its international Catholic FBO partners. While Orthodox and Muslim FBOs’ clients are upward of 90 percent from their own faith communities, the local Catholic FBOs’ clients are between 60-70 percent Catholic.

In spite of the picture painted above, this does not mean that the NGO sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not at risk of discrimination in serving clients. While inclusion has been protected by a highly secularized NGO sector and an active international NGO community, these are not necessarily permanent features of Bosnian society. In particular, international political, military, and humanitarian presence in Bosnian society is waning. Many international NGOs and FBOs have left Bosnia and Herzegovina or are planning to leave in the near future, both due to growing stability in the country and the needs presented by disasters in other parts of the world. Nevertheless, local FBOs from the three dominant faiths may prove resilient by virtue of their strong local roots and local institutional support. After all, these are the same FBOs who closed their doors for 50 years during Communism, only to reemerge as soon as political conditions permitted.

Protecting Inclusion

A number of steps can be taken in Bosnia and Herzegovina to prevent religious discrimination in social service assistance. These measures include continuing and increasing mentoring by international NGOs and increasing the sustainability of secular NGOs.

Continue and Increase Mentoring Before Leaving the Country

While the international NGO community has had its fair share of corruption and scandal in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it has also benefited the local NGO sector by providing models of professional service and by assisting with local NGO capacity building. International NGOs continue to be highly involved in these activities. Staff from these organizations are well aware that they are likely to leave soon and would like to depart the country in a responsible manner, leaving behind sustainable programs. It is important that international NGOs continue to send a message of inclusive assistance and help this value become institutionalized within local NGOs as they prepare to leave the country. The influence of international Catholic FBOs on the local Catholic FBO provides an excellent example of the potential benefits of such efforts. It is hoped the local Catholic FBO will become even more inclusive in its assistance to all in need and will continue to be so after the international Catholic FBOs leave Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Increase the Sustainability of Local Secular NGOs

Perhaps the most desirable, yet most challenging, way to protect the inclusiveness of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NGOs is to increase the sustainability of local secular NGOs. Decreasing dependence on foreign funding is critical. To that end, many NGOs are beginning to promote small-scale, income-generating projects which will no doubt be of help in this regard. In addition, it is imperative that organizations focused on the needs of the war begin to diversify their activities. Not only are war-related needs decreasing, but donors are becoming less interested in funding such programs. Indeed, several interview participants mentioned other NGOs that had ceased to exist due to their inability to redefine themselves. One interesting pattern emerging is that NGOs previously focused on women victims of war are now beginning to focus on other forms of violence against women, such a domestic abuse and human trafficking.


The evidence from Bosnia and Herzegovina seems to indicate that the international NGO community has benefited local NGOs by providing models of professional, inclusive services and by assisting with local NGO capacity-building. In particular, the inclusive message sent by the international Catholic FBO community to local Catholic FBOs has helped to increase inclusive assistance in local FBOs. Continued and increased cooperation with international NGOs and particularly international FBOs may help to institutionalize a culture of inclusive service among local FBOs. Given that local church networks were one of the important faith-related benefits espoused by international FBO staff, local NGOs undoubtedly will benefit international NGOs as well with their grassroots connections and invaluable local knowledge. F

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.