Saturday, October 5, 2019

Douglas Hostetter, Interfaith Paths to Peace

Photo is from Doug Hostetter's Picture of Peace website.


Douglas Hostetter
United Nations NGO Representative
Pax Christi International
Peace Pastor
Evanston Mennonite Church
(former) Visiting Scholar and Adjunct Lecturer
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
(former) Adjunct Professor 
Goshen College, Goshen, IN

Presented at 
First International Conference On Peace And Conflict Resolution
University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran
April 29-30, 2019


The paper draws heavily on my personal experience doing alternative service with the Mennonite Central Committee in Vietnam during the American War in Vietnam (1966-1969) and directing the Bosnian Student Project during the War in Bosnia (1992–1995), when I was the International/Interfaith Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. 

The paper will document how Mennonites worked with Catholics and Buddhists to organize a literacy program for Vietnamese refugee children during the American War in Vietnam, and how Christian, Muslim and Jewish activists in the US, worked with a network of Serbs, Croats and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia to assist Bosnian Muslim and mixed-ethnic students who were unable to continue their education due to the Bosnian War or ethnic/religious hatred, and brought those students to the US, placing them in American Christian, Muslim and Jewish homes and facilitating their education in the US.

The paper will also recount the surprising results of several workshops on the Bosnian Student Project that I presented at the Consortium on Peace Research, Education, and Development, a major conference of peace academics, during the height of the War in Bosnia. 

The paper will highlight the importance of practice as well as theory in the teaching of peace and conflict resolution and encourage the inclusion of actual peace practitioners in the teaching faculty of any peace studies department, and incorporation of practicums for all peace and conflict studies students.

Key Words

Interfaith, Vietnam, Bosnia, Mennonite, Conscientious Objection, Practicum, Peace Practitioner


Mennonites broke away from the Catholic Church in 16th century Europe in an attempt to model themselves on the early Christian church. I will not attempt to go into a complete analysis of the theological difference with the Catholic or other Protestant churches at the time, but only point out three of the significant breaks from the Christian orthodoxy of that time. [For more extensive coverage, see Anabaptism: Neither Catholic or Protestant, Walter Klaassen] [i]. Mennonites insisted that the Christian faith was something that one chose freely as an adult, not something that one inherited by be being born in a Christian family or a Christian state; secondly, Christians should take literally Jesus’s commandments to love your enemies; and thirdly that allegiance to God superseded the demands of governments to take up arms on behalf of the state. [ii] For their unorthodox beliefs, and refusal to participate in the military, Mennonites were persecuted across much of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. [iii] My own ancestors fled persecution in Europe and immigrated to the US in the early 18th century. I was raised in a small Mennonite community in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Growing up I realized that as Mennonites we lived differently, dressed differently and had different beliefs than the other residents of Harrisonburg, Virginia, but I also knew that we were God’s people, and at the time I believed that we were God’s only people.  

I graduated from Eastern Mennonite College in 1966, just as the US government was escalating the war in Vietnam. At that point in American history, students were exempt from military service until graduation from college, but upon graduation most US males were immediately classified with the status of 1-A, eligible for military service. As a minister’s son from a Mennonite community that had refused military service since the US Civil War, it was not difficult to convince my draft board that I should be granted the status of 1-W, conscientious objector or CO. As a CO one was required to do two years of alternative service working for a school, hospital or some other public or non-governmental institution to fulfill a “civilian capacity contributing to the maintenance of the national health, safety or interest.” [iv] I decided that since most of the young men of my generation were being sent against their will to fight and kill in Vietnam, that I would volunteer to do my alternative service in Vietnam working with the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a Mennonite relief, development and peace organization which was working in Vietnam helping the victims of that war. After a few months of Vietnamese language training in Saigon, I was sent as the first MCC volunteer to work in the Central Vietnamese village of Tam Ky, in Quang Nam province.  Tam Ky was in the middle of the war zone, with a number of camps filled with refugees from the war.I remember watching the US Air Force bombing “enemy” villages only a kilometer or two away from Tam Ky, and saw the wounded civilians being brought to the Tam Ky Hospital or refugee camps. I spoke with displaced peasant farmers from areas to the east and the west and learned how US planes had sprayed their fields with Agent Orange [v], an herbicide that instantly destroyed their fields of rice or vegetables.  Understanding the evil of war was not difficult when working in Tam Ky.

MCC knew that the Tam Ky area was overwhelmed with civilians displaced by the war. The program director in Saigon suggested that when I arrived in Tam Ky, I should meet with the refugees, find out what were their greatest needs, and work with them, using MCC resources, to meet those needs. I was surprised to learn from the residents of the refugee camps that their greatest need was education, they wanted their children to learn to read and write. As in most wars, it was the infrastructure (schools, clinics and market places) in “enemy” territory that was first destroyed. The schools in the rural areas of Quang Nam Province had been destroyed two years before I arrived and the children in the camps had missed their first two years of education. As an American just learning Vietnamese, it was clear that I would not be the person to teach the Vietnamese children how to read and write their own language. I desperately needed help. Growing up in Virginia, I had been taught that Mennonites were the only people of God, but when I arrived in Saigon, the MCC Director gently encouraged me to broaden my perspective. I was now in Vietnam, 14,000 kilometers from home, and would soon be moving to Tam Ky, where there were no Mennonites at all. There was however, a small Vietnamese Protestant church in Tam Ky, as the result of American Protestant missionary efforts decades earlier, and those Vietnamese Protestants, I was assured, would be my Christian brothers and sisters. Although I felt a bit awkward, I went to the Protestant pastor in Tam Ky and asked if he would allow the Protestant Youth Group to be volunteer teachers in a new MCC program on weekends to help the children in the Tu Heip Refugee Camp in Tam Ky to learn to read and write. The pastor thought for a minute, and then responded that he and the youth group already visited the Tu Heip Camp every weekend where the pastor preached evangelistic sermons, and the youth group sang Christian songs. The Protestant youth group would not have time to teach children in the camps how to read and write. I was very disappointed. I had interviewed many families in the Camps; most had asked for education for their children, and not a single family had asked for Christian evangelism for their children. Growing up I had known that Catholics were not real Christians, they had viciously persecuted my ancestors in Switzerland and Germany in 16th and 17th centuries and they believed in fighting “just wars.” But I was halfway around the world, and I really needed help. I finally worked up my nerve to speak with the young Catholic priest who ran the Catholic Youth Group, and asked him if he would allow the youth group to volunteer as teachers in the MCC literacy program in Tu Heip camp that I was trying to develop. The priest paused for a bit and then responded, “Yes, we will be glad to help the MCC literacy program teach the Catholic children in Tu Heip how to read and write. Just show us which are the Catholic children.” That was a help, about 10% of the children in Tu Heip were Catholic, but that still left 90% of the children without teachers.  

I knew that Buddhists could not be children of God, they worshiped in pagodas with large statues of Buddha. But I was far from home, and the children of Tu Heip desperately needed teachers. I finally approached the young monk, Thich Han Doc, the leader of the Buddhist Youth Group, and asked if he would encourage his youth group to volunteer as teachers in the MCC literacy program in Tu Hiep camp. He responded, “Yes,” and never asked which children were Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Confucianist, Cao Dai or Hoa Hao, but offered their services for all children in the camp.  

I was embarrassed when Thich Han Doc, the young monk who led the Buddhist Youth Group, invited me to teach English at the Bo De (Buddhist) High School in Tam Ky. I had gone to Eastern Mennonite High School (EMHS) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and I was certain that our principal would never have allowed a Buddhist to teach at EMHS. On the first day teaching at the Bo De High School, Han Doc introduced me as his “brother.” He explained to the class that Buddha was not God, but was a finger pointing in the direction of God, and although Han Doc was not very familiar with Christianity, perhaps Jesus was also a finger pointing to God and we really are brothers and sisters.

It was some months later that I learned from some of the Buddhist high school students that Han Doc’s mother had been killed years earlier by an American bomb. Yet, Han Doc became one of my closest friends in Tam Ky. I was not sure how many Mennonites I knew back in Virginia could become close friends with a Vietnamese if their mother had been killed by a Vietnamese bomb. 

The literacy program in Tam Ky grew to include 90 high school student volunteer teachers from a variety of faith backgrounds who taught over 4,000 children how to read and write their own language.

It was in Vietnam in the late 1960’s that I learned not only the horrors of war, but also the power of interfaith cooperation to build friendships that could transcend religious, ethnic and political differences to work together to mend the world and ourselves that have been broken by hatred and war.  

In the early 1990’s, decades after my time in Vietnam, I was appointed the International/Interfaith Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a century old interfaith pacifist organization. [vi]  My new appointment was beginning just as Yugoslavia was coming apart after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the Cold War was ending. Yugoslavia had been a socialist country composed of six republics and two autonomous regions, organized largely along ethnic/religious lines. Slovenia and Croatia, both largely Catholic populations, seceded from Yugoslavia without too much conflict, but when the multi-ethnic Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (often referred to simply as Bosnia) voted to secede, the bitter Bosnian War began. The population of Bosnia according to the 1991 Yugoslav census was 43% Bosniak (Muslim), 31 % Serb (Orthodox Christians), 17 % Croat (Roman Catholic), 6% identified only as Yugoslavs with the remaining 3% composed of Jews, Albanians, Hungarians, Roma and others. [vii] As the war began (1992) the President of Yugoslavia and the majority of the officers in the Yugoslav Army were Serb (Orthodox Christian). When a majority of the Bosnians voted to withdraw from Yugoslavia and become an independent multi-ethnic country, Serbian (Orthodox Christian) militias in Bosnia, with covert military support of the Yugoslav Army, attacked the Bosniak (Muslim) and Croat (Catholic) areas of Bosnia, attempting to drive Bosniak Muslims and Croat Catholics out of areas of Bosnia where there families had lived for hundreds of years. The Serbs (Orthodox) coined a new term, “ethnic cleansing” to describe their efforts to drive Bosnians of other ethnic/religious traditions (primarily Bosniak Muslims and Croat Christians) from Bosnia to create an ethnically pure country of Orthodox Christians. [viii] The Ethnic Cleansing often took the form of Serb militia taking over a Bosnian town or village, incarcerating the non-Orthodox Christians citizens of that area in holding camps where the economic, political and intellectual leaders were selected out, to be sent to concentration camps for torture or death while the men of military age were held for involuntary labor and the women, children and old men were forced across the border into Croatia. [ix] The Bosnian War was, in essence, genocide, carried out by Orthodox Christians against Muslim, Catholic and other non-Orthodox Christian citizens of Bosnia.  

As the International/Interfaith Secretary of an American interfaith pacifist organization founded by Christians, I was faced with the dilemma: How does a predominantly Christian pacifist organization respond to a genocide where Orthodox Christian militia are killing Muslims and others in the name of God? It was a major ethical/religious struggle for me. I read everything I could find on the war and the atrocities, and struggled for clarity as to how the Fellowship of Reconciliation should respond. About a year into the war I received a call from Imam Tosun Bayrak, a local Turkish/American Sufi Shaykh, asking if I would meet with him to learn of his recent trip to Croatia where he visited refugee survivors of the Bosnian War. He had traveled to Croatia with a small delegation of Muslim psychologists and social workers to visit the women survivors of Bosnian rape camps. During the Bosnian War, Muslim women who were captured by Serb militia were often put into rape camps where they were impregnated by Serb militiamen, held until they were six months pregnant and then forced across the Croat border. Rape was a weapon of war in Bosnia. In Yugoslavia, religion and ethnicity of a child, was inherited from the father.When a Serb (Orthodox Christian) soldier impregnated a Bosniak (Muslim) woman, the mother would be dishonored in her Muslim community and a new Christian child would be created.  

When the American psychologists met with the rape camps victims, they quickly understood that the survivors had been so severely traumatized, that there was little that their group could do during their short visit, except pray with the women, assure them that they were loved by God, and they had not sinned by being a victim of rape. When the group realized that they could not fulfill their original goal for their visit, they looked to see if there were other things that they could do while they were in Croatia. They quickly discovered that there were many Bosniak students in Croatia, who had originally come to study at the University of Zagreb (the capital of Croatia), one of the best universities of the former Yugoslavia. When the Yugoslav Republic of Croatia broke away to become the independent state of Croatia in the early 1990’s, it also became a Catholic country, rather than socialist state. Bosniak Muslim students who had begun their education in a university in their own socialist country, suddenly discovered that they were now in a foreign students in a Catholic country. They were no longer considered matriculated as students and were expelled from their dorms and their university. But by the time that the Bosniak students lost their status at the University of Zagreb, the war in Bosnia had already begun, and the Bosnian cities in which their families lived were no longer accessible. The students had organized themselves into the Association of Students of Bosnia and Herzegovina to try to get help to continue their education. Because Croatia had been part of the Austrian Empire in the 19th century, there was a small office of the Austrian branch of the World University Service that was trying to facilitate scholarships for a few of the Bosnian students to attend the University of Graz, in Austria, but for most students there seemed no hope. The students lived together packed in small apartments selling their blood or anything else they had, to pay the rent. 

Tosun Bayrak had been a university professor in the US before becoming an Imam, and he quickly realized that the Bosnian former University of Zagreb students he was meeting were some of the brightest students of Bosnia.  He recognized that many of them would be very successful at colleges or universities in the United States. When he returned to the US, he wrote letters to 300 American colleges and universities explaining that some of the most talented students from Bosnia were no longer able to continue their education due to ethnic/religious discrimination, and asked each college to offer a full tuition scholarship to a qualified Bosnian student. Only one college responded. The Dean explained that they were a Christian college, and they would be pleased to offer a scholarship, but only to a Bosnian Christian student. Tosun remembered that he had met two Bosnian Croat sisters from Sarajevo, whose parents supported the new multicultural Bosnian government, but had sent their daughters to Croatia for safety. He checked and the Christian college agreed to accept both sisters. When the sisters applied for American student visas at the US embassy, however, the official pointed out that the sisters were Croats, and as Catholics from Bosnia, they could get immediate citizenship in Croatia and attend the University of Zagreb for free, so he would not give them student visas to study in the US.

After Tosun Bayrak reported to me his experience in Croatia, and his futile attempt to find scholarships for the talented Bosniak students he had met in Croatia, he turned to me to ask me what the Fellowship of Reconciliation might do to help the victims of the War in Bosnia. I explained that the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) was a peace organization, and we could write an article about the war and the victims of that war for Fellowship Magazine, or perhaps organize a conference where we could bring in experts to lecture on war. Or we might organize a demonstration against the war at the United Nations in New York. I remember Tosun Bayrak responding, “Yes, those all sound like good things to do, but could you also help just a few of those talented Bosnian students to continue their education in the US?” I explained, that although many of FOR members were educators, FOR was a peace organization, not an educational institution. I did, however, promise to take his request to the FOR leadership, but encouraged him not to be too hopeful.  

My request to the FOR leadership received the response that I expected. FOR does not do that kind of work, the Director indicated, but I could give lectures about the war and the difficult situation faced by Bosnian students, and was encouraged to write an article for Fellowship Magazine about the dilemma of Bosnian students.  

I did an article for Fellowship describing the dilemma of Bosnian students in Croatia and the Jerrahi Order of America, the small Sufi charitable organization that wanted to find American schools who would offer full tuition scholarships to qualified Bosnian students who could no longer continue their education because of the war or ethnic/religious discrimination. In response to my article, several FOR members who were professors or chaplains in colleges, invited me to come to their colleges, to lecture on the Bosnian war, and the difficulties faced by Bosnian students. I immediately accepted the invitation and organized a multi-state lecture tour to visit the colleges that had extended the invitations.  

Although Tosun Bayrak had been totally unsuccessful in finding American colleges and universities willing to offer scholarships to Bosnian students, by the time of my invitation to lecture in several colleges, he had found a private high school near his mosque that had offered scholarships to six qualified Bosnian students, who had recently arrived to Chestnut Ridge, New York, near the FOR headquarters. With Tosun Bayrak’s permission, I asked the newly arrived students if some would be willing to accompany me in a speaking trip to the Midwest. Three students agreed, and we were soon loaded into my station wagon and headed out for our week-long trip to visit five colleges in Ohio and Indiana. In each college, I would give a short lecture on religion, ethnicity in the former Yugoslavia and Bosnia War, and then ask one or two students to tell the story of what happened to them and their family in Bosnian War. The stories were heartrending and very personal — neighbors expelling neighbors from their houses, families being sent to concentration camps. During the discussion period people would always ask, What could we do? I would respond that students and faculty should educate themselves about the war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, write to their member of congress or the Secretary General of the United Nations, but any college could also offer a full scholarship to one Bosnian student. I explained that there were thousands of qualified Bosnian students unable to continue their education in the former Yugoslavia because of war or ethnic prejudice. For any college that would offer a full tuitions scholarship, the Bosnian Student Project would find an academically qualified Bosnian Student, no longer able to continue their education in the their own country, to accept that scholarship. Three of the five colleges we visited offered scholarships to one or two qualified Bosnian students. When I returned from our first speaking tour, the Bosnian Student Project  was born. [x] Tosun Bayrak realized that the Fellowship of Reconciliation with its American Christian roots could be more successful in getting scholarships for Bosnian Muslim and mixed ethnic students in American schools than the Jerrahi Order of America, with its Turkish Sufi roots. Tosun asked me to be the director and FOR to be the primary sponsor, and he and his community would volunteer in the project.  

The Bosnian Student Project from its very beginning was an interfaith endeavor, with the goal of American Christians, Muslims and Jews uniting in an effort to find scholarships and homes in the US for Bosnian Muslim and mixed ethnic students who were no longer able to continue their education in the former Yugoslavia due to ethnic/religious prejudice or the war. The concept was really quite simple for Americans to understand. Regardless of your faith tradition, if you did not believe that God wanted God’s followers to kill or drive out people of other faith traditions, the Bosnian Student Project (BSP) wanted you to work with others who shared that belief to try to rescue Bosnian students who were the victims of religious prejudice and hatred. If genocide is the epitome of religious hatred, love and inclusion was the antidote. We needed Americans of any faith tradition with connections to US high schools, colleges and universities who were willing to challenge those educational institutions to affirm their commitment to the humanity of all individuals, regardless of religious background, to offer a full tuition scholarship to a qualified Bosnian student who had been denied their right to education simply because of their religious/ethnic background. The BSP also needed American host families who were willing to love, accept and provide a home to a Bosnian student who had lost their home due to the war or ethnic cleansing. Every host family was carefully screened. The host family from any religious traditions, needed to love, welcome and affirm the Bosnian student in their own religious tradition. Proselytizing was strictly prohibited. Host families were asked to learn about and respect the dietary and worship obligations of the student, but they were also permitted to invite the student in their home to come with the family to their house of worship.  We also encouraged communities where more than one Bosnian student was hosted, to form interfaith support committees for the students in that area. Those support committees were often of host parents of Bosnian students (often Christian or Jewish) together with concerned faculty from sponsoring colleges or universities (often Muslim) so that the group could support and provide interreligious/intercultural understanding to both the host families and the Bosnian students in that community.

The Bosnian Student Project would have been impossible without interfaith cooperation at all levels. Although the American, predominantly Christian roots of the Fellowship of Reconciliation made finding scholarships easier in the United States, it was only the deep involvement of the Jerrahi Order of America with its deep Sufi Muslim roots, and the willingness of Shaykh Tosun Bayrak to make numerous visits to Croatia and Bosnia, that made possible the trust of Bosnian students and their families. Interfaith cooperation was also essential for the project to be successful in the former Yugoslavia. We absolutely needed, and were blessed to find, people of all of the major ethnic/religious traditions of Bosnia and Croatia who were willing to cooperate with the project to help us find qualified Bosnian Muslim and mixed ethnic students in Croatia or Bosnia and help them leave the war zone to continue their education in US educational institutions. We were fortunate that the Austrian branch of the World University Service (WUS) had small offices in Zagreb, Croatia and Sarajevo, Bosnia. The WUS staff person in Zagreb was a wonderful Croatian Croat (Catholic) woman while their staff person in Sarajevo was an amazing Bosnian Serb (Orthodox Christian whose wife was Muslim) adjunct professor; both were eager to help the BSP identify talented Bosnian students from Muslim and mixed ethnic families, and assist the students to leave the war zone and continue their education in the US.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation developed a small brochure to describe the desperate situation of Bosnian Muslim and mixed-ethnic students and outlined the BSP program to work with WUS in Zagreb and Sarajevo to identify qualified Bosnian students unable to continue their studies in their own country. The brochure further described the effort of the BSP to find US educational institutions willing to offer full tuition scholarships to qualified Bosnian students and American families willing to host and care for those students during their academic studies. The brochure further pointed out a precedent in FOR’s history. During WWII, an FOR affiliated Christian community in southern France had sheltered, protected and educated hundreds of Jewish children during the Nazi occupation of France. [xi]

To emphasize the interfaith nature of the effort, the slogan we chose for the BSP was a quote from the Talmud (Jewish sacred text) “To save one life, it is as if you had saved the world,” [xii] for a project that was rescuing Muslim and mixed ethnic students.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Jerrahi Order of America circulated the brochures and information on the Bosnian Student Project throughout their respective networks. In actuality, however, most people learned of the effort through friends or relatives. The Bosnian Student Project had one very powerful motivator: during a period when the news was consistently negative —war, atrocities, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and the world community failing to respond — the BSP offered something positive that an American family or an educational institution could actually do. A school could offer a full tuition scholarship to a qualified Bosnian student, and a family could offer love and shelter to a Bosnian student in our program.

The project worked quite simply.  An organizer (peace practitioner) who had learned about the project would call offering to help. The organizer could be a faculty member or a chaplain at a college or university, but most often they were simply a concerned citizens who had learned of the program and wanted to help. The organizer was then encouraged to find an educational institution willing to offer a full tuition scholarship to a qualified Bosnian student. If they found a high school, college or university willing to offer a full scholarship, we would analyze the academic level of the institution, and forward that information to the World University Service in Zagreb and Sarajevo which had already collected the academic records of hundreds Bosnians unable to continue their education due to the war or ethnic discrimination, and eager to participate in the BSP. Each student was also asked to write a two-page biography describing their family, personal experience in the war and hopes for the future. When an organizer indicated that they had secured the promise of a scholarship, and a family willing to host the student, we would send to them the academic records and short biographies for 4 or 5 student who would be academically suited for the school which was offering the scholarship. The organizer and the admissions officers at the school, would then review the student files, and agree on which student they wanted to accept at their educational institution. Once the BSP was notified of the selected student, we would immediately informed WUS in Zagreb or Sarajevo who would notify the student, and arrange to get them to Zagreb. In Zagreb the student was oriented to the BSP program and prepared for their interview at the US Embassy where they would be interviewed and they could present the documentation that they had been accepted at a specific American school. If the interview went well, the US embassy would issue the student visa to come to the US and the BSP would buy the airline ticket from Zagreb to a US city near their American school, and notify the organizer who would arrange to meet the student when they arrived.

The project started small with six high school students, but by the end of the war, 4 years later, we had been able to bring over 160 Bosnian students and place them high schools, colleges and universities, including the most prestigious American educational institutions: Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford.

The BSP was successful not only because we were able to rescue 160 talented Bosnian students from the war zone and facilitate their continuing education in the United States, but also because everyone who participated in the project was changed for the better through the experience. [Full disclosure, I was not only the director of the BSP at the time, but my own family was a host family for two Bosnian students during the project. My family was deeply enriched by the experience, but especially my sons (who were eight and twelve years-old when the project started) who had the amazing opportunity to grow up with Muslim older brothers in our home and to attend their Bosnian brothers’ graduations upon completion of their Master’s Degrees.]  

The BSP was interfaith at every level. Everyone knew that the success of the project depended on the full cooperation of people from other faith traditions. In Bosnia and Croatia, we needed the assistance of Croats (Catholics), Serbs (Orthodox Christians) and Bosniaks (Muslims) if we were to be able to bring Bosnian Muslim and mixed ethnic students out of Bosnia, across the front lines into Croatia. And in Croatia, we needed Croats (Catholics) to host the students in Zagreb and to facilitate their getting US student visas at the American Embassy in Croatia. Most of the host families in the US were of a different faith tradition than the student that they were hosting, and all of the support groups were interfaith to further help the BSP students to be successful in their educational experience.  

I will give just a few of the examples of student experiences that were transformative for the students, their host families and their educational institutions.  

Lejla, a Bosnian Muslim student from Mostar, was a freshman at the University of Sarajevo when the war broke out. She immediately returned to her home in Mostar, which was shelled first by Serbs (Orthodox Christians), but later and more bitterly in building-to-building conflict, destroyed by Croats (Catholics). Lejla was offered a scholarship at Iona College, a Catholic college in New Rochelle, New York, and her host family was Ms. Diane White, an African American Catholic who lived near the college. [xiii] Lejla, who should have hated Catholics for what they had done to her family and her city, discovered that there were also Catholics who wanted to love, shelter and educate her.

Maya was a freshman at the University of Sarajevo when the war broke out. Her father was Muslim and her mother was Serb (Orthodox Christian). The family had lived comfortably in a section of Sarajevo that was populated by mixed-ethnic families. When the Serb militias took over the section of Sarajevo where her family lived, her father was arrested. Maya’s mother who was Serb sought the help of a family friend, a Serb physician who had also been drafted into the Bosnian Serb Army. The Serb doctor searched police stations and military camps until he found Maya’s father, who had been tortured nearly to death. As the doctor had a higher military rank than the camp commander, he was able to claim Maya’s father as his prisoner, and evacuate him to a hospital in Belgrade, Serbia, where Maya and her sister were able to smuggle him across the border into Macedonia, and then on to Turkey. Maya’s mother was eventually able to leave Sarajevo on a Red Cross caravan to Croatia, where she was then able to travel to join the rest of the family in Turkey. In the Bosnian refugee camp in Turkey Maya and her sister were able to attend an English school run by a Muslim voluntary organization. Unfortunately, when the Muslim organization learned that Maya and her sister were only half Muslim, they were deemed ineligible to continue in the English language school. When the BSP called Maya to tell her that we had located a college and a host family for her in the United States, Maya’s first question was, “Do you know that my father is Muslim and my mother is Christian?” Maya was assured that the BSP was open to all Bosnians regardless of race, religion or ethnicity. [xiv]

I remember that I was particularly concerned about Sanela, a Muslim student from Tuzla who had been out of school in a Bosnian refugee camp in Europe for several years. I knew that the adjustment from refugee camp to life in a mid-western college would be a difficult transition, so I called an FOR member, a Baptist minister in the same town as the college, asked him to welcome Sanela and help her adjust to college life in Ohio. I called back several months later to ask the pastor how Sanela was doing. He responded, “The congregation has accepted Sanela as a Muslim member of our Baptist church. We feel so privileged to have her with us. Being a friend of Sanela, holding her as she cries and we cry with her, has helped our congregation to move beyond the limits of religious separation. We couldn’t have a more meaningful gift to our congregation. Everyone in the congregation feels helpless at the enormity of what she represents, and we are privileged to stand with her in this suffering.” [xv] In a letter to me Sanela wrote, “This church is just like my mosque back home. They are my family. Did you know that Baptist and Muslims pray to the same God?” [xvi]

It is assumed to be common knowledge that Jews and Muslims are bitter irreconcilable enemies. The Bosnian Student Project proved that that does not need to be the case. Two Bosnian Muslim students were hosted by two Jewish rabbi families in our program. The family of a very religious New York Jewish doctor welcomed into his home Mirza, a very religious Bosnian Muslim high school student in his last year of high school. After Mirza had moved on to a nearby college, I called the host mother to enquire how things had gone for Mirza and the family. “Mirza has become like one of our children,” she explained. Even now that he is off to college, he returns home every other weekend. A month ago was our 25th wedding anniversary. The children decided to organize a big party to celebrate with our family and friends. Mirza came and spoke about how important we had been in his life. He couldn’t finish his speech because he broke down crying. He has really become part of our family.” [xvii]

A Jewish family in North Carolina who had hosted a Bosnian Muslim high school student called me one day to inform me that they had just received word that their student’s father had just been killed by a Serb sniper in Sarajevo. [A not uncommon experience in the BSP. Three other students lost a parent in that same year.] The killing had occurred in the midst of the siege of Sarajevo, so it was clear that the student could not return home for her father’s funeral. “How can we help Maja mourn the tragic loss of her father?” the host mother asked? I consulted Shaykh Tosun Bayrak who found a Lebanese/American imam in North Carolina. The imam met with the host mother’s rabbi and together they were able to provide suitable prayers and rituals in North Carolina to help this young Bosnian high school student mourn the tragic death of her father in Sarajevo. [xviii]

The goal of the Bosnian Student Project was to enable talented Bosnian students to continue their education in the US so that they could return to rebuild their country after the war. The war, however, ended with a deeply divided county, with the homes of many Bosnian Muslims located in the areas of Bosnia that had been given to the Serb sector of the tripartite Bosnian government. In many situations Muslims families were kept from returning to rebuild their homes in the Serb controlled areas of the country, so many BSP students had no home in Bosnia to return to at the end of the war. Some have remained in the US; some have found jobs in other countries while others were able to return to their homes in Bosnia after graduation. I have visited our BSP graduates in the US and four foreign countries, but have also returned to Bosnia about a half dozen times to visit our former students. All of our graduates have done well, regardless of the country where they now live, and not one of our students has become a terrorist or extremist, because each of the BSP students has experienced generosity from good people from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. The graduates from the Bosnian Student Project have gone on to become good people themselves, each in turn, helping to make the world a better place.  

The four years of the Bosnian Student Project during the War in Bosnia, gave me a good chance to examine some of my own stereotypes on peacemaking and peacemakers. During a 1994 visit to meet with our World University Service liaison contact in Zagreb, she invited me to a dinner with some of her friends: Serb, Croat and Bosniak, all professionals, who lived and worked in Zagreb. One of the guests at the dinner was a Croat doctor who arrived late to the dinner because he was just coming back from the border, where he had spent the day doing medical evaluations of Bosnian refugees who had just been forced across the Bosnian border into Croatia, only 30 kilometers from Zagreb. I remember asking the mixed ethnic/religious guests, how it was that we were all comfortably having dinner together in Zagreb, while people like them were killing each other only 30 kilometers away. No one had a clear answer, and all felt betrayed by their academic disciplines that had failed to predict the ethnic/religious wars that swept both Croatia and Bosnia. I stated that from my experience I would have assumed that educators and religious leaders would be the ones that would teach love, compassion and tolerance to combat the forces of hatred, war and ethnic/religious chauvinism. They quickly pointed out that the ethnic/religious hatred that had driven the earlier war in Croatia and the ongoing war in Bosnia had originated from the faculty in the universities and had been encouraged and supported primarily by religious leaders. My dinner guests pointed out that as the ideology of communism was collapsing in Yugoslavia, ethnic/religious nationalism was used to quickly fill the void and to enhance the power and popularity of politicians, university professors and religious leaders who promoted it. 

In the 1990’s the Consortium on Peace Research, Education and Development (COPRED) was the major association of peacestudies professors and researchers and development scholars in the United States. COPRED held their 22nd annual conference on October 8–10, 1993, in Hampton, Georgia, on the theme, “Nonviolence in a Violent World: Responses to Racism, Poverty and War.” This was at the height of the War in Bosnia; the Honorable Muhammed Sacirbey, the Bosnian Ambassador to the US, was the feature speaker. I was on the schedule to do a workshop, “Nonviolent Strategies During Time of War.” The Bosnian Student Project had just begun a few months earlier, and I was excited for the prospect of the BSP at the conference. I was giving a workshop in a conference with over a thousand peacestudies professors and research academics associated with hundreds of American colleges and universities. I was going to describe the peace project that not only responded creatively to the war of that era, but also matched perfectly with the theme of the conference and the academic resources of the participants (almost every participant had some connection to a college or university). The workshop was packed, every seat taken with people standing in the back of the hall. Everyone lauded the timeliness and creativity of the Bosnian Student Project. But when I asked the packed hall which of the participants wanted to offer, or even just explore, getting a full tuition scholarship for a qualified Bosnian student at their college or university, the room was totally silent. In a conference of more than 1,000 peace scholars, meeting during the height of the War in Bosnia, there was not one who stepped forward to offer to find a scholarship in their university for a Bosnian student no longer able to continue their education because of the war or ethnic discrimination. As one academic explained to me afterwards, “We academics do research and teach about peace, we don’t actually do peace.”

That was a hard lesson for me to learn, and it completely overturned many of my assumptions. When the Bosnian Student Project was finally officially accepted to be sponsored by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, I remember thinking that it would be the theologians and peace studies professors on the FOR board who would be the first to bring Bosnian students to their academic institutions. I was wrong; they were the last. I remember a prominent Christian theologian from Louisville, Kentucky, on the board who explained to me that FOR was a peace organization, not social workers. He explained that our task at FOR was to educate the world about how God taught love, tolerance and fellowship, not hatred and war. Despite the board member’s refusal to assist the BSP, I was able to find several FOR members in Louisville who secured scholarships for two Bosnian Muslim students in Louisville colleges. Several years later, the theologian approached me after a board meeting and apologized. “I am sorry for the way in which I opposed the Bosnian Student Project. You know, I have been teaching and preaching love and peace in Louisville for three decades, and no one seemed to understand. When the Bosnian students arrived, and we had Christian families rescuing Muslim students from the war zone, welcoming them into their homes and helping them continue their education, suddenly the people of Louisville have begun to understand what I was trying to teach for 30 years.”


The first step in interfaith peace work is the recognition that one’s own faith tradition is not the only way to God, and that other faith traditions and their practitioners must be accepted, respected and cooperated with, in peacebuilding efforts. While interfaith dialogue encourages people of different faith traditions to explore, compare and contrast their different theologies, interfaith peacebuilding encourages people of different faith traditions to draw on their own faith traditions to engage in cooperative efforts with people of other faith traditions in humanitarian efforts to save lives and build a better common world. In a world in which much of the conflict and war is defined along a religious/ethnic axis, it is extremely powerful for interfaith peace practioners from both sides of that axis to come together in concrete actions of love and compassion to build peace through the assistance to the victims of hatred and war.

The intellectual understanding of the history and theory of peacebuilding is very different than the practical, actual engagement in peacebuilding. As the University of Tehran goes about setting up a department of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution, I would hope that the university would make a real effort to include peace practitioners, as well as academic scholars, in your teaching faculty. I would also hope that you would include within the program a requirement that students do an internship or practicum in which they would be obligated to bring their theoretical knowledge and understanding into real life practice in actual peacebuilding or conflict resolution projects.


I do not want to take away from the results of the interfaith work that I have referenced in the paper above, but I also want to acknowledge that every interfaith engagement happens within a specific geography, culture and moment in history. One cannot assume that a project from one place, at one time, can be repeated in a different local and a different era. The Bosnian Student Project of the early 1990’s, during the American presidency of President Bill Clinton, could not have been possible in the post September 11, 2001, era during the presidency of Donald Trump. But other projects of interfaith engagement are waiting to be discovered, and it is our task as peacebuilders to find the interfaith paths to peace in our time and in our place.  


i. Klaassen, Walter. 1973. Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant. Waterloo, Ont.: Conrad Press.

ii. General Conference Mennonite Church, and Mennonite Church. Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1995.

iii. Van Braght, J. Thieleman. Martyrs Mirror. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994.

iv. Selective Service System. “Alternative Service Program.” Accessed March 19, 2019.

v. Griffiths, Philip Jones. 2003. Agent Orange: "Collateral Damage" in Viet Nam. London: Trolley.

vi. Dekar, Paul R. 2016. Dangerous People: The Fellowship of Reconciliation Building a Nonviolent World of Freedom, Justice, and Peace. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company.

vii. Census. 1991. Ethnic composition of Bosnia-Herzegovina population, by municipalities and settlements, Zavod za statistiku Bosne i Hercegovine - Bilten no.234, Sarajevo. 

viii. Sells, Michael Anthony. 1998. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. Comparative Studies in Religion and Society, 11. Berkeley: University of California Press.

ix. Ibid.

x. Hostetter, C. Douglas. 1997. The Bosnian Student Project: A Response to Genocide. Pendle Hill Pamphlet, 334. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill Publications.

xi. Hallie, Philip Paul. 1994. Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There. 1st HarperPerennial. New York: HarperPerennial.

xii. Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.

xiii. Hostetter, p. 16.

xiv. Ibid., pp. 19-21.

xv. Ibid., pp. 24-5.

xvi. Ibid., p. 25.

xvii. Ibid., p. 26.

xviii. Ibid.


Dekar, Paul R. Dangerous People: The Fellowship of Reconciliation Building a Nonviolent 
World of Freedom, Justice, and Peace. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning Company, 2016.

Census 1991. Ethnic composition of Bosnia-Herzegovina population, by municipalities and   settlements,  Zavod za statistiku Bosne i Hercegovine - Bilten no.234, Sarajevo 1991

General Conference Mennonite Church, and Mennonite Church. Confession of Faith in a 
Mennonite Perspective. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1995.

Griffiths, Philip Jones. Agent Orange: "collateral Damage" in Viet Nam. London: Trolley,

Hallie, Philip P, and Mazal Holocaust Collection. Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of 
the Village of Le Chambon, and How Goodness Happened There. 1st ed. New York:
Harper & Row, 1979.

Hostetter, C. Douglas. The Bosnian Student Project: A Response to Genocide. Pendle Hill
Pamphlet, 334. Wallingford, Pa.: Pendle Hill Publications, 1997.

Klaassen, Walter. Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant. Waterloo, Ont.: Conrad Press, 1973.

Selective Service System. “Alternative Service Program.” Accessed March 19, 2019.

Sells, Michael Anthony. The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia. Comparative
Studies in Religion and Society, 11. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.

Van Braght, J. Thieleman. Martyrs Mirror. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994.

I am very grateful to Doug Hostetter for allowing me to publish his oustanding paper on Bilgrimage. As the subheading above notes, he presented it at the First International Conference On Peace And Conflict Resolution in April 29-30, 2019 at the University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran. The paper will be published in the proceedings for the International Conference on Peace and Conflict Resolution, and will be used as a course reader for that group's course on peacebuilding next year. I also want to express my gratitude to Ruth Krall for connecting Doug Hostetter and me.

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