BANJA LUKA, Bosnia (Reuters Life!) - You’d never guess at first glance whether Bosnian teen Tanja Bekic is Muslim, Serb, Catholic or from a mixed marriage and that’s the point of attending a Catholic school.
The 17-year-old’s secondary school in Banja Luka is one of seven Catholic schools that have become islands of multiculturalism in the deeply divided society of Bosnia.
Bekic is in her third year at a school which is referred to only as the “Catholic Gymnasium,” in a building without signs and where public spaces lack the usual crucifixes and portraits of the Virgin Mary found in Catholic schools the world over.
Even the entrance is a little hard to find at first.
To see Bekic and her school friend Tanja Savic, dressed in their jeans and wearing make-up, one could not distinguish them from typical students anywhere in central and eastern Europe or most other places in fact -- and that’s the way they like it.
They say the Gymnasium’s deliberate ethnic blindness helps free them from the constant focus on ethnic and religious differences that has pervaded Bosnian society since Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up in the 1992-1995 war which blighted the region.
“I am really happy to be here,” Bekic said. “Most students here are from mixed marriages, we can learn how to accept more easily members of other ethnic groups.”
State schools in the country became segregated into mono-ethnic institutions after the war split Bosnia into two autonomous and ethnically based regions -- the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb Republic.
Many children from mixed marriages, who have become a new minority in Bosnia’s largely mono-ethnic towns and schools, feel better protected in mixed Catholic schools from the stigma of ethnic identity that mark out “different” students.
At Banja Luka’s Catholic Gymnasium, 60 percent of students are Orthodox Serbs, 25 percent Catholic Croats and 15 percent Muslim Bosniaks and those from mixed marriages.
“Our mission is reconciliation, that we can and need to live together,” Banja Luka’s Roman Catholic Bishop Franjo Komarica told Reuters, adding that only 12,000 Croat Catholics out of 220,000 from before the war still live in the Serb Republic.
“We cannot bring the sun, although we might want to, but at least we can light a candle to banish the darkness.”
In the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, renown for centuries for its multi-religious and multi-ethnic composition, all public schools have Muslim majorities and offer religious classes only for the pupils of Islamic faith.
But in the Catholic School Center (KSC), which opened during the 43-month Bosnian Serb siege of the city, an imam holds religious classes for the Muslim students just as a priest teaches Catholics.
“If we had enough Serb Orthodox students, we would hire an Orthodox priest for them,” said KSC Dean Ivica Mrso, adding that an imam and an Orthodox priest have enrolled their children in his school.
Mirjana Zulj, a mother of first grader Tara, said she enrolled her daughter in KSC because it was the only multi-ethnic school in the city.
“Here you have children of all religions, nobody pays attention to their ethnic or religious affiliation,” Zulj said. “I was raised that way and I raise my daughter that way.”
Bosnia was once the most ethnically mixed republic of the former Yugoslavia and had the highest percentage of mixed marriages, something that was at one time celebrated as a symbol of success.
That delicate ethnic fabric was ripped apart by wartime persecutions, killings and the displacement of people along ethnic lines.
In the KSC, opened to offer classes primarily to Croat Catholics, one-third of its 1,326 students are non-Catholics.
“The fact this is the only school in the Sarajevo region where you can find one-third of students who are a minority is a sign of hope to all normal people here,” Mrso said.
Parents also praise the Catholic schools for their high standards, smaller class sizes, attention to security and low tolerance for student delinquency.
“At first, I wasn’t very comfortable as an Orthodox Serb sending a child to Catholic school,” said Bosnian Serb journalist Igor Gajic, whose daughter attends the Banja Luka Catholic school.
“But the skepticism vanished after I saw how happy she was with the school.”
Perhaps the most important voice to hear when discussing education and considering Bosnia’s future is that of the two Tanjas, neither of whom offered to reveal their backgrounds.
“We don’t feel any difference between us because there is no difference,” Tanja Savic said.
“This is the way it should be everywhere.”
Editing by Paul Casciato