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N. Burns: Conference of Bosnia's Religious Leaders

Opening the Conference of Bosnia's Religious Leaders

Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary for Political Affairs
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC
November 22, 2005

Remarks As Prepared

Honored guests, ladies and gentlemen:

I want to welcome you to the State Department and thank the Bosnian and American religious leaders for coming here today. Rabbi Schneier, our deepest thanks to you and to your staff for organizing this session. I remember how the Appeal of Conscience Foundation convened a Conflict Resolution Conference in March, 1995 in Vienna. That conference led to a call for understanding and reconciliation that reverberated months later in the corridors of Dayton, when the Appeal of Conscience Foundation called for spiritual support for the U.S. and other negotiators as we sought a comprehensive solution to end the fighting. Now, ten years later, I am happy to see Bosnian and international religious leaders convene again to provide spiritual support as we modernize Dayton and look to a better future for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This afternoon, at a lunch hosted by Secretary Rice, we will gather with Bosnian and American political leaders, past and present, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Dayton Accords. Dayton was a remarkable achievement which restored peace to a terribly divided land and gave millions the chance to rebuild their shattered lives. We will also celebrate the progress that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made in the political arena, in particular, by taking the first steps toward a better future for all Bosnians and eventual integration into NATO and the European Union.

These are remarkable developments and deserve to be highlighted.

But, encouraging as they are, these developments mask an important side of the story. Ten years after Dayton, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a divided land. One state, yes, but three peoples, whose perceived differences at times still prevent them from drawing on the full strength of their common interests. Bosnia and Herzegovina has yet to find the way to assure that the common good overcomes the narrow communal concern. We have yet to find the key to reconciliation, which is ultimately the key to peace.

All the great religions of the world share a common commitment to peace, tolerance and reconciliation, and it is this commitment that brings us together today. Bosnia is a country that includes followers of several of the major world religions and their diverse communities, with Muslims, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and Jews. Before the war, Bosnians lived in relative harmony, and in many ways Bosnia was an example to the world of a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society. We in America also aspire to be such a society and promote those values throughout the world. Religious freedom is a constitutional right for Americans. It is also a universal human right, enshrined time and again in international law and declarations.

At its best, our faith brings out the most noble in us, encouraging us to see beyond differences to the common humanity at the heart of all faiths. But when the unscrupulous use the differences between sets of beliefs to divide us, it can serve to manipulate people and encourage acts of violence. During the war in Bosnia, the unscrupulous too often prevailed, and people of different faiths were often bitterly divided.

During the darkest days of the war, there were many examples of compassion, of men and women helping friends and neighbors who were in need regardless of their ethnic background. During the siege of Sarajevo, faith-based charities like the Jewish charity La Benevolencija, the Catholic Franciscan charity St. Anthony's Bread, and the Muslim charity Merhamet played a vital role in meeting people's basic needs at a time when no one else could help. Their generosity was available to all, without discrimination. I know that many Sarajevans of all faiths might not be alive today if they had not received help when it mattered most.

In American history, it was men and women seeking to escape religious persecution who laid the foundation for our nation. Thomas Jefferson, one of our most esteemed leaders, drafted the first law protecting religious freedom in America. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, citizens of the United States continue to cherish our religious liberty. President Bush has urged us to be mindful of the deep roots of this basic right in our society. "As the United States advances the cause of liberty," President Bush has said, "we remember that freedom is not America's gift to the world, but God's gift to each man and woman in this world. This truth drives our efforts to help people everywhere achieve freedom of religion and establish a better, brighter and more peaceful future for all."

Many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially young people, are discovering and rediscovering their faiths in a way that was not possible under the Communist regime of the former Yugoslavia. Let this process of discovery be part of a shared conversation about how religious communities can work together to improve the lives of ordinary citizens. When I was in Sarajevo last month I met with students from various ethnic and religious backgrounds. They eloquently expressed their hopes to live and work together in a Bosnia and Herzegovina based on their shared values from their respective faiths. They are not afraid to pursue dialogue that advance the interests and the values of all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including a commitment to overcome past prejudices to achieve a better future.

This is what we hope to advance today, a dialogue that takes the common threads of humanity at the core of each of the great faiths represented here to find the ground for cooperation and reconciliation. We agree that such a dialogue must move beyond the recriminations of the past and explore ideas of peace and understanding based on the values and faith that all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina hold dear. It is a daunting task, but one I believe the leaders here will ably tackle.

At the opening of my remarks, I offered thanks for the example that the participants in the Appeal of Conscience Foundation's Vienna Conference in 1995 offered to us at Dayton. I hope your meetings today, and your continued work in the coming months, can provide another example of community leaders from diverse backgrounds working together towards a better future for their respective followers. That better future, based on understanding and tolerance, can provide a beacon to light the way for political and other discussions, such as those held yesterday at the U.S. Institute of Peace and those that we look forward to you joining later today at the luncheon hosted by Secretary Rice.

As the spiritual leaders of your communities, you are a bridge between values and actions, between ideals and practice. When we strive to live up to these values and ideals, we bring out the best in ourselves and each other. Your leadership and your presence here today send an important message to your believers and to all who care about Bosnia's future. I thank you for your guidance, and I believe that with your help, the healing processes of dialogue, tolerance and reconciliation will continue to support the Bosnian people as they work to realize their dreams and aspirations.

Thank you.

Released on November 23, 2005


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