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Lecture Series to Educate Students on Post-Communist Europe

Even after the communist regime in Eastern Europe fell 25 years ago, political and social unrest continued to plague the region. The newly independent countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, which had previously been part of Yugoslavia, struggled to establish a democratic government and create a new identity.

“The question that arose from everyone in that region, which spans from Russia to Eastern Europe, to Southeastern Europe, has been, ‘What kind of government are we? Who are we? What is our identity and what do we believe?’” said Cynthia Simmons, director of undergraduate studies in the department of Slavic and eastern languages and literatures.

Boston College students, faculty, and staff will have the opportunity to learn about the post-war, post-communism climate in these Eastern European nations at the Faith Communities and Civil Society Lecture Series, which will be sponsored by the Institute for the Liberal Arts at BC.

The first lecture will feature Marc Gopin from the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University, and will be Sept. 22 at 5 p.m.

Gopin studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for years, but his recent studies focus on the conflicts in Syria. Simmons plans to speak about Syria and the importance of Muslims working with Muslims of other types of Islam.

“The first lecture, I assume, will speak about the very current issue in Syria, and I assume that students in theology and the [Islamic civilizations and societies] program and students in political science, it’s very interdisciplinary, will be interested to hear what he has to say about what has to be a ray of hope for what is happening there,” Simmons said.

The latter two lectures will focus on Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, which is of particular interest to Simmons because she herself studied in the former Yugoslavia as an undergraduate, and has studied the region since the fall of communism.

Over the past 25 years, she has studied how the former Yugoslavia has sought a new identity and a new, democratic government.

When people sought to form new identities after the oppressive communist regime fell, they turned to religion. Because of the region’s geographic location, however, the people came to identify with all three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

But, she believes, Americans do not understand the role religion plays in the region.

In the U.S., civil society, or the areas in which civilians negotiate with the government, exists in free press, non-government organizations, and religious freedom. But Americans can see religion as a problem in Eastern Europe—they see it as an authoritarian body of power in opposition to democracy and civil society, Simmons said.

Although some of the religious hierarchies in the region became oppressive and unwilling to work with people of other religions, a portion of the public is both religious and open to others, Simmons said.

“I have come to understand that on the ground there are actually members of faith communities, not the hierarchy, I have to say, and again it’s unlike Liberation Theology, but those people who identify with faith, they work closely with the people, and they also are building civil society,” Simmons said.

The latter two lectures, which will take place on Oct. 20 and Nov. 3, will feature Alen Kristic and Zilka Spahic-Siljak, two professors and activists from Bosnia, which experienced a war and genocide in the early 1990s. Thousands of ethnic Bosnians were killed by nationalist Serb forces.

Together, Kristic and Spahic-Siljak travel to schools in Bosnia and encourage educators to teach their students about world ethics, so that they can learn to live together even though they are of different religious convictions.

Simmons invited these professors to speak at BC because she has gotten to know them in her travels to Bosnia over the years. She hopes that these professors, who work on the ground in Bosnia, will inspire the BC community as much as they inspire her.

She also believes that hosting Kristic and Spahic-Siljak will help them continue their advocacy work.

“They meet obstacle after obstacle after obstacle,” Simmons said. “What is very inspiring to them is a breath of fresh air among colleagues in open societies that sort of, I guess, help to give them a kind of restorative—to meet with people of like minds and people who work across the world that are similar. It is restorative to them, it is inspirational. And they can go back and fight the fight.”

Simmons believes that the lectures will shed light on a conflict that students may not know about, but that is important in understanding global relations and the role of religion in Eastern Europe.

“I hope to bring attention to this part of the world, because again, for my students, when I continue to teach about the world, I think, ‘Where were they 20 years ago?’” Simmons said. “Perhaps not born. So they don’t know about this war and the genocide in Europe after the war, which took place in Bosnia. So it will educate them and remind them what happened. It will bring attention to the situation which is not resolved.”

Featured Image Courtesy of George Mason University

September 18, 2016

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