Ivo Markovic

A priest and scholar, founder of the interfaith Pontanima choir in Sarajevo

Profile by Keziah Conrad
March, 2007

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

When Ivo Markovic has a few hours free from his myriad responsibilities as a Franciscan[1] priest, professor, and activist, he puts on a sturdy pair of shoes and he walks. He leaves the monastery of St. Anthony and strikes off with Rex, the German shepherd who lives in the monastery garden. As often as not, he goes straight out the east end of town and along the steep valley wall on the old road to Pale. The new road to Pale is visible across the valley, but the old road is now only a track, overgrown with weeds in the summer. Ivo walks out toward Pale, and sometimes he has even walked all the way to Pale. Most people do not walk between Sarajevo and Pale — not only because of the distance, but because these two towns are separated by much more than kilometers. Pale, the headquarters for the Bosnian Serb army during the recent war, and Sarajevo, the city that spent nearly four years beseiged by that same army, could hardly be further apart in many ways. Yet Ivo walks toward Pale, carrying chocolate bars to share with the few elderly people living in isolated houses along the road, in the same way that he joyfully cultivates friendships with Muslim neighbors in Sarajevo.

Ivo moves intentionally and frequently across boundaries that most people respect out of a deep desire for self-preservation. In a setting where fear continues to be a useful political tool for nationalist leaders, he refuses to be afraid. He sees fear as a degrading, dehumanizing force — the opposite of goodness, love, and faith. Fear sets up boundaries between people. It calls for defensive measures, which, in turn, generate even more fear which spreads like wildfire. Ivo has seen this destructive cycle of escalation firsthand in his own land. He sees it continuing even now, more than ten years after the war officially ended. He believes the only way to stop the cycle is to show trust, to create relationships, and to cross boundaries in a spirit of love and friendship.

Ivo's activities have not always made him popular. He laughs when he speaks of the leaders of Bosnia's religious communities: "They don't necessarily like me. But they respect me!" Ivo's work as a pastor and teacher, his frequent appearances in the media, his writings, and especially his initiatives such as Face to Face Interreligious Service and the interreligious choir Pontanima, have sometimes provoked intense reactions, but they have ultimately earned him great respect. In 1998, he was honored by the Tanenbaum Center in New York with their first Peacemaker in Action award. Later, the Pontanima choir received awards from Search for Common Ground (2004) and the city of Sarajevo (2006).

Early influences

Ivo Markovic was born in 1950 in Susanj, a picturesque village in the mountains of central Bosnia, not far from the town of Zenica. He was the second child of seven, and grew up surrounded by his extended family. "It was an old and respectable family that had lived in that place for about two hundred years," he says, "a traditional family with traditional values, but relatively mild and open, a family that was first and foremost defined by Catholicism, by Christianity." He knows that before he was born, in the late 1930s, his grandfather took a strong stance against the fascist Ustashe movement that became popular among Croat communities. His grandfather and his father were harassed in the 1940s for refusing to participate in the rising Communist regime. "Even as a child I was aware of certain failures of Communism — there was a lot of injustice; party members were privileged; national groups were treated unequally. But in my family we had our own internal ideas, and kept alive a sort of resistance. That may be one reason why the Franciscans attracted me. They were people who lived humbly. They were good preachers, they were not selfish, they worked for the people. I felt that I might be able to work in this way, too — it attracted me."

Ivo studied at the Franciscan Faculty of Theology in Sarajevo, was ordained in 1976, and earned an MA in pastoral theology from the Zagreb Catholic Faculty (1984). After spending several happy years working as a parish priest in an isolated rural area, he was sent to work at the Faculty of Theology in Sarajevo. He was living in Sarajevo when war broke out.

War in Bosnia-Herzegovina

"When the war started, when the bombs started falling, it was a big shock to me. I couldn't believe that people could do that, that anybody could shell Sarajevo. I think that we theologians are fairly naive; it's hard for us to believe that people can be evil. I didn't believe it was possible to kill, to die." The Faculty of Theology was immediately occupied by Serb paramilitary forces (in early 1991), and all the Franciscans there were held captive. Through contact with these brutal men, who boasted about all the Muslim people they had slaughtered, Ivo slowly realized the gravity of their situation. "That was my first encounter with actual murderers, with people who had already killed tens of people. They talked about it, how they had killed Muslim women, even children, people who couldn't get out of bed — that's what they told us. That was my first encounter with the power of evil. That's when I saw what evil is."

After some time, the Franciscans were expelled from the Faculty of Theology. Ivo went immediately to his family home, where life still teetered on the edge of normalcy. "When the first confrontations began between Bosniaks and Croats, Muslims and Catholics, I got very involved trying to stop it. I went in among the armies on all sides, I literally chased people out of the trenches to talk with each other, to prevent them from fighting. I went in among the armies without any fear, simply believing that nobody would kill me — they had no reason to kill me. I also engaged my father in peacemaking work. He was a respected person in that region, a district delegate, active politically and socially, and well thought of. I took him with me and we collaborated to keep people from fighting, to encourage them to work together."

In late 1992, Ivo was summoned by the Franciscans to work in Zagreb with an initiative called Christian Information Service. This organization worked to relay true, unbiased information to the outside world so that the facts about the war would be known. "I was very active in Zagreb. I hosted visitors — church representatives, journalists, humanitarian workers — and I took them into Bosnia. I felt that I had to work hard for Bosnia, for the people, by spreading true information, by working on all levels towards reconciliation; connecting people, working with politicians, and also spending time with ordinary displaced people in their everyday lives. I felt it was just as important to spend time with students, to help refugees locate necessary documents, and so on — I kept very busy."

Tragedy and Shock

"Then came that tragic moment in 1993, the eighth of June, when I learned that my father had been killed in an offensive by the Bosnian [Muslim] army, which was then strong around Zenica. Not just that my father had been killed, but that many of my family members had been killed, that my village had been destroyed, my parish, my birthplace. It was an unbelievable shock for me, it really was a shock, I had not expected anything like that. Everything that I later learned, researched, discovered about the process of reconciliation — I first experienced it firsthand. I experienced shock, deep shock, pain, everything that people do feel in those moments: questions, protest, even before God. Why did this happen to him, to me, to us — why has such an innocent person been killed?

"I doubted in my work. Everything I had done, maybe I had done it wrong, maybe I should have helped people prepare to defend themselves, to fight. Could I perhaps be responsible for the death of these people, because I naively believed in peace — and now people are lost: my father, my family members, everybody, everything that we had, that we were, everything has been broken, destroyed, ruined. I even thought that maybe I should, like Che Guevara or priests who took up arms, maybe I should go to Bosnia and somehow, whether with weapons or some other way, join in and defend the people, be with them. I literally did think of such things in that terrible suffering, sadness, pain. It was very hard for me, especially the first two or three days. I could feel that my friends wanted to help me and did not know how.

"But all at once, I think after prayer, I emerged from those thoughts, from that pain, and suddenly my soul was cleansed and I perceived that it was evil that killed my father. Evil was to blame, and I had to continue in my fight against evil. I was able to emerge from that deep degradation that I experienced with my father's death, perhaps through the gift of faith, the strength of orientation, and I said: I must continue to work for peace!"

Days after receiving the news of his father's death, Ivo learned of an event taking place at the Zagreb mosque. He called the students from the choir he worked with to accompany him to the mosque, to sing for peace. The students were Croat Catholics from Bosnia who had fled their homes. "It was a cathartic act for me. I invited them and said, 'We have to work for peace. I know it's hard; anyone who finds it too hard doesn't have to go, but please, if you can manage it, let's go there to witness that we are working for peace, that even in this moment when there is war in Bosnia, we are getting together and doing something, maintaining connections, building peace.' Out of 24 students, 18 of them showed up, which made me really happy. At the mosque they had some sort of program — socializing, singing — there was a lot of understanding and goodwill, a refusal to be trapped in negative energy, militarism, or revenge."

A Healing Symphony of Religions

This choir of young Catholic people singing at a mosque foreshadows the profound and inspirational work of the choir Pontanima, which Ivo founded in Sarajevo shortly after the war. He describes how he returned to a city of bombed-out buildings and people who carried heavy burdens of sorrow. While trying to assemble a choir that could add a festive atmosphere to services at St. Anthony's church, Ivo and the young conductor Josip Katavic made a critical decision: because there were not enough Catholic singers, they would invite others to join the choir, whether they were Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists or anything else. "We developed a pretty clear orientation from the very beginning," says Ivo. "The basic goal was to create a symphony of religions, to bring together through song the three springs of monotheistic religion: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. That was the fundamental idea, and also to create a community of people who would sing together, socialize, become a community." In the earliest days, the singers developed an intense bond as they began performing classical Western Christian music, then incorporated Eastern Orthodox music, then Jewish songs, and finally Muslim songs. They moved through their own prejudices, hurts and fears, clinging fiercely to the image of loving co-existence and rich diversity that they saw in the choir. The original core of 12 or 14 grew to 24 and eventually to more than 60, drawing in experienced, mature singers as well as those who were still teenagers. The group found an appropriate name, formed from the Latin words pons (bridge) and anima (soul): Pontanima.

Courageously bridging the unimaginable gulfs between Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethno-religious communities, the singers traveled to towns and villages throughout the country and the entire region. "The idea was to be a form of positive provocation," Ivo explains. "We wanted to show these religious groups, so fully enslaved to nationalism, that there is another way to be, that religions can make positive contributions." Indeed, many people found Pontanima very provocative. Ivo enjoys telling about his meeting with a stranger who had attended a concert. This man indignantly proclaimed that if he could get his hands on that heretical Ivo Markovic, he would strangle him for having the gall to stand in his habit, singing Muslim songs. "I am Ivo Markovic," Ivo told him, whereupon the stranger was abashed and backed down.

Pontanima has increasingly found receptive and enthusiastic audiences, not only in the former Yugoslavia, but throughout Europe and the US. The choir has traveled to Washington, DC in 2004 to accept the Common Ground award from Search for Common Ground. In 2006, the year of its tenth anniversary, it received the highest recognition possible from the city of Sarajevo: the Sixth of April award.

Crossing Boundaries

Reflecting on the impact of his father's death on his later work, Ivo says:

"I haven't spent too much time thinking about it. In any case, I fall into the category of people who are more practically oriented. As a Christian, I believe that Jesus acted first, worked first, loved people first. He was conscious of God's love, aware of the experience of God's love, but he acted, first and foremost. And only then, if somebody asked for interpretation, he would explain. I have chosen the same thing. Witnessing. Acting. Being with people. That's my orientation — perhaps it is a Franciscan orientation — finding a balance between action and spirituality. The war may have intensified this tendency, but that is my nature anyway. I think that acts are most important, witnessing, living the things that we talk about rather than remaining within some internal hedonism, enjoying beautiful ideas. Ideas aren't beautiful in themselves — beautiful ideas are real. Beautiful ideas have to be lived.

"But that moment, that experience of despair, meaninglessness, surely gave me a different perspective when reckoning with evil. Maybe it's easier, after such an experience, to believe in good, easier to be positive. Afterwards there is less chance for one to be caught up in evil. In me it created a radical movement toward peace, toward goodness. Something in me came to life, and I became more powerful. All doubt, all negativity and sense of burden simply disappeared. Before then, my identity had always been more or less rooted in the identity of my own people, my ethnic group. My identity is still rooted in my own people — I didn't hate them, or love them any less — but I was better able to understand others, too. It was not the least bit difficult for me to go among Muslims, among Serbs, and to be with them in exactly the same way that I would be with Croats. Somehow, I was able to feel their pain. And that is what I did. I went back to Bosnia among Muslims, and perhaps it is because of this suffering that I had that capacity.

"I've heard people ask, how is it possible to forgive? I didn't have those thoughts. I just wasn't burdened with that. In the same way, as soon as I had the chance I went to Zenica, to my family's house. There were Muslims living in my house, and when I said that I had grown up in that house, the children were terrified and ran away, crying 'an Ustashe is here!' I called them back; everybody was in shock, everybody was pale — it was a while since they'd seen anybody from the other side. After those first few minutes we discovered each other's humanity, sat down for a cup of coffee. Afterwards I always used to go visit them. And then there was the old woman who was in my brother's house. She brought out a shotgun to kill me — a grandma with a gun! — so that I wouldn't come into the house. But I said very gently, 'Grandma, you're not going to kill me.' We drank coffee together. Later on she used to tell me she was happier when I would come to visit than if it were her own son, who had disappeared in the course of the war.

"I haven't investigated it much in myself, to what extent that turning point was an impulse for me in my later work for peace, but I certainly found it easier than others to enter into that other side that many people perceive as opposing, enemy. I simply stopped acknowledging the boundaries that divide people and create phobias, and I felt called to cross those boundaries and to invite others to do so."

More information about Friar Ivo Markovic can be found at http://www.crucibleofwar.com/markovic.htm.

[1] The Franciscans are a Roman Catholic monastic order.