All over the world, wars are being fought between one religion’s followers and another’s. That’s nothing new, but vivid images of the atrocities carried out in the name of religion now reach the rest of the world almost as they happen. Many people are finding it increasingly difficult to stand by and do nothing.
The fact that much of the world’s conflict is rooted in long-standing ethnic or racial divisions makes it that much harder to find a solution. But the religious roots of the conflicts also may provide an opening to peace.
Ivanka Vana Jakic, a Yugoslavian-born peace activist, is working with UN representatives, religious leaders, and government officials in an attempt to designate some of the world’s holiest sites as internationally recognized zones of peace. The world’s religious leaders should be heading up the search for peaceful solutions to conflict, she says.
Vana is half Serbian, half Croatian, and her brother-in-law is a Bosnian Muslim. She studied Tibetan Buddhism for many years, and has worked to preserve Tibetan culture. But she downplays her own ethnic and religious roots, saying she is above all a humanitarian.
More recently, Vana has broadened her peace effort, which began in former Yugoslavia. Today, alongside religious and secular leaders, and in ethnically diverse communities, she is working on designating sites in King County as zones of peace. [See update at the end of this article.]
Vana invited us to her small room in a suburban home south of Seattle to tell us her story.
My work as a peace missionary began in the spring of 1989, when after many years of studying and working abroad, I returned to my family in Zagreb, Croatia, for an extended stay. While there, I visited Medjugorje, a small and remote pilgrimage site in the south of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I’d never gone to a Christian holy place before, and I was deeply moved by thousands of people streaming in from neighboring countries and from as far away as Australia, Japan, and China. Slowly climbing up the rocky goats path towards one of the two main pilgrimage sites, I heard groups of pilgrims saying their prayers in at least seven different languages. As they did not have a common language, they communicated with each other through love and kindness, with smiles. In the course of the past 12 years, about 15 million people came there in search of peace.
It was this experience in Medjugorje that inspired me to initiate the transnational peace project that I now coordinate.
PEACE FOR MEDJUGORJE
My initial concern in that spring of 1989 was only the protection of Medjugorje. I returned to the US and gathered letters of support for the idea that Medjugorje should be protected as a zone of peace. It was very clear to me that I would need to seek support first from abroad before the authorities inside Bosnia and Herzegovina would recognize the value of the idea.
In the summer of 1990, I went to Sarajevo to ask the local religious leaders to support the protection of Medjugorje.
I’ll never forget my encounter with Mr. Bristic, the former president of the Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Fifteen minutes into our conversation, he said: "Please come to the window. Look at the mosque in front of us. Next to it is a Serbian Orthodox church, to our left is a synagogue, and behind us the Monastery of St. Anthony. You are nowhere more welcome than in Sarajevo! We are a small United Nations, and we need peace above all."
Standing by the door of the Meshihat, ready to leave, I said, "Today, Medjugorje, tomorrow, Mecca."
The same morning, I had an appointment with the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Jewish organization, Mr. I. Ceresnjes. During our talk, he took out of his briefcase a yellow badge of the Star of David that his grandmother was forced to wear during the Nazi occupation. He explained that he is one of the few survivors of his large family – the others died in Auschwitz.
The Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina, "are a handful of people, anonymously threatened with extinction," he said. They were anxious about the safety of their monumental synagogue and their families. Despite all of this, or, perhaps because of it, Mr. Ceresnjes agreed to support the designation of Medjugorje as a national zone of peace.
And again, as I was parting from him I said, "Today, Medjugorje, tomorrow, some of the Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem."
PEACE FOR ALL
As I left, I was very much under the weight of this whole situation; Mr. Ceresnjes’ cry for help had become mine. I thought, "why wait for tomorrow; why not today? All holy places in the world should become zones of peace!"
The idea was simple and splendid, yet overwhelming and unrealistic. I decided to seek verification of the expanded idea from those I trusted most – my spiritual guides. This is how my journey back to India began.
I was in India for three years in the early ’70s. I met Mother Teresa of Calcutta and been inspired and guided by the Dalai Lama while I was studying and working with Tibetan refugees in the Himalayas.
Beginning in November 1990, I covered 10,000 kilometers in four months, and all along the way I talked about zones of peace with leaders of the southern Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Christians, and Muslims. The latter part of the trip, I was accompanied by a fellow peace missionary from Zagreb, Drago Smalcelj. We traveled in overcrowded second-class trains and on buses with dismantled seats and broken windows. We slept in railway stations or in muddy tourist camps and bought our food at hygienically suspicious food stands.
In December of 1990, His Holiness the Dalai Lama granted me a 45-minute audience, during which time he gave the project his blessings and asked me "to give top priority to the peace project." He wrote a letter of support that opened doors all over.
Next, during a week in Calcutta, Mother Teresa became our inspiration, counselor, and a loving and caring mother. She greeted us in our own language, "Are you hungry? Do you have a place to sleep? How about money for transportation?"
She endorsed the spiritual aspect of the project, calling for "centers of prayers for peace." Her advice was, "Begin small, with one place. Be modest! Create peace in your own hearts, your families, your environment, and then attempt to spread it elsewhere." She spoke of her own beginnings, how at first she took care of just one leper. "Now I have 120,000," she said.
The morning we left her Missionaries of Charity, we got a message that the Gulf War had begun. Three-and-a-half million beggars, who are born, live and die in the streets of Calcutta, were swept by a wave of fear; rumors flew about unsheltered exposure to radioactive fall-out downwind of a possible nuclear attack on Iraq.
As we became immersed in the total chaos, I became acutely aware of the tremendous energy required for these emotions of fear, anger, hatred and aggression. I realized then that the energy created by war could eventually be turned against war itself.
Because of the outbreak of the Gulf War, our talks with followers of the Indian Islamic orders proved to be especially thought-provoking. My question was, "If Mecca and other Muslim sacred sites were declared zones of peace, and your religious rights and codes were protected and respected internationally, would you still have holy wars?"
Invariably, the answer was, "One of the reasons we have holy wars is to defend our sacred places."
I invited the Muslims to join me in an alternative – a "holy peace" and, in most instances, they offered whole-hearted support.
In February, I attended the Second International Conference on Peace and Non-Violent Action organized by ANUVIBHA, the Jains’ Transnational Center for Peace and Non-Violence, in Rajsamand, India. The 125 delegates, who came from 21 countries, adopted a resolution we promoted calling for a petition to be sent to UNESCO and the United Nations asking for a new international convention through which every nation or country could declare as international zones of peace their holy places and places of historic and cultural importance. The resolution also called for an appeal asking religious leaders to convene a world peace conference aimed at ending wars fought in the name of religion.
I co-signed both the petitions called for in the resolution and delivered them, on the 8th of March, 1991, to representatives of the UN and UNESCO in New Delhi.
I went on to the Vatican, where I had a brief but memorable audience with Pope John Paul II, who understood my plea for protection of the world’s sacred heritage.
THE FIRST ZONES OF PEACE
When I returned to Zagreb, Slovenia and Serbia were at war; the political climate in Croatia was traumatic. Back in Medjugorje, I was challenged again, "Why wait for an international convention? It may take years. Why not turn the fear of the pre-war situation into an effort for peace by declaring Medjugorje as a zone of peace, right now, on a national level?"
That inspiration to take immediate action changed my life. That is why I believe that the transformative powers of love and compassion, transcendent knowledge, and wisdom are always present in holy places and accessible to open-hearted and open-minded individuals. Holy places cannot "belong" to any one particular culture or time. They are our common sacred heritage.
From Medjugorje, Drago and I went to Sarajevo, and we immediately met with Mr. Alija Izetbegovic, the president of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He said not only the sacred sites, but the whole of Bosnia and Herz-egovina should become a zone of peace, and become to the Balkans what Switzerland is for Europe.
The real tragedy and a great loss for the world is that Bosnia and Herzegovina could have served as a living example of how different ethnic and religious groups can get along well on the same soil for hundreds of years. And that is what President Izetbegovic conveyed in his letter of support:
"Creating zones of peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina would be of utmost importance; for the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of this republic reflects the religious and ethnic diversity of its population. I myself, as many other peace-loving individuals, give full support to this noble idea launched by these dedicated missionaries."
And within four weeks, on the 17th of September, 1991, we were able to put together in Sarajevo the first meeting ever of the top leaders of the Muslims, the Catholics, the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Jews, and the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was during that meeting that we declared the first eight sacred sites as national zones of peace – two from each of the four religions; among them were Medjugorje and the synagogue and mosque in Sarajevo.
It was also agreed that teams of specialists in international, civil, and holy laws would draft new legislation on the basis of which all sacred sites could be declared zones of peace, and that the new law would attempt to bring closer the law of God and the law of man.
(In the American context, for example, if members of the Kuiu Thlingit nation were to request that their sacred site in southeast Alaska be declared a zone of peace, their holy law would have to be understood first, in order to protect their constitutional right to free exercise of religion.)
The socialist pre-war government and the major religious leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina agreed to do this! The tragic interference of civil war in this process of democratization is a separate issue.
In October 1991, we went to UNESCO in Paris at the invitation of Dr. Janusz Symonides, UNESCO director of the Division for Human Rights and Peace. We agreed that I would coordinate the drafting of the new international convention on zones of peace and find a country that is a member of the UN willing to present it in the near future to the UNESCO General Assembly.
I don’t know yet which country will present the new convention; perhaps India, where the idea first received wide-spread support, or maybe the United States.
What is exciting at this moment is that I have just received an invitation from UNESCO asking me to speak at a seminar it is sponsoring on the role of churches in the creation of a culture of peace. Specifically, they asked me to talk both about zones of peace and about another important idea I’ve been promoting: the establishment of national and international religious round tables.
A MISSED OPPORTUNITY FOR PEACE
I need to tell you what has happened in the meantime. Some of the eight places in Bosnia and Herzegovina that were declared as national zones of peace have been damaged, desecrated, or destroyed.
If these eight sites had been internationally recognized zones of peace, one might speculate that the United Nations peacekeeping forces would have had a legitimate right to go there at the first sign of aggression and use these zones as centers for humanitarian relief and peace negotiations.
That could have been done with the prior consent of the government and the respective religious leaders; their presence would not have been considered an interference in the internal affairs of another country, but rather, an expected intervention based on an international convention ratified by the country in question.
But instead of building on the zones of peace concept, or using other methods to draw on the non-violent power of public opinion, the authorities have allowed the emergence of a new world disorder.
As a result, Bosnia and Herzegovina will be a part of the conscience of the entire world. If we fail to address the issue of "ethnic cleansing" today, we will not be able to solve the conflicts in other countries tomorrow.
And that is a very serious matter. It shows how weak we are – how weak the world is, despite all of the military and nuclear arsenals that have crippled our abilities to seek and find peace within our own minds.
There is a great concern that the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina may inflame other countries in the Balkans. Hatred and war are contagious; they’re like a disease. It is a false belief that we can isolate ourselves and survive as self-sufficient world systems. If we do not realize our fundamental oneness as a big human family in one home, our planet, in no time, will become an empty house.
So this is not only an issue of declaring certain special areas as zones of peace. This is also a process by which we, as humanity, can discover our own inner power – the power of peace, the power to control our lives from within our hearts, families, and communities, and the power to take responsibility for what is happening to us.
It is time to use our resources to heal ourselves and our abused environment, and to create the beautiful world that is meant to be. We still have a moment or so to make that choice.
[Web update — In 1994 the non-profit Zones of Peace International Foundation was founded with the mission of contributing to the evolution of the global culture of peace through fostering and assisting in the establishment of Zones of Peace in active partnership with governments, religious leaders and citizens. For more information, you can contact them at
Zones of Peace International Foundation
P.O. Box 2483
Federal Way, WA 98093-1803
Tel: 206/874 2619
Fax: 206/661 2273