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Religious Leaders: Elections Offer Hope for Tolerance

September 14, 1996

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Muslim and Roman Catholic leaders hope today’s elections in Bosnia lead to more tolerance in this bastion of the Serbian Orthodox church.

Catholic Bishop Franjo Komarica and the Islamic mufti, Ibrahim Hadzihalilovic, said that though their followers have suffered much under Serb rule, the elections offer promise of change.

``We see the elections as a ray of light at the end of the tunnel,″ Hadzihalilovic said Friday.

Bosnians are casting ballots in national elections intended to unify the Balkan country after a 3 1/2 year war.

The vote is taking place nine months after the signing of the Dayton peace accord, which envisions the eventual unification of Bosnia, freedom of movement and the right of refugees to return to their homes.

The religious leaders like Hadzihalilovic are hoping for the most optimistic of scenarios, despite trying circumstances.

He offers prayers from Banja Luka’s only mosque _ a small room decorated with blocks of stone from a 16th century mosque that was one of a dozen mosques in this northwestern Bosnia city destroyed by Serb extremists.

``Three years ago, there was a big boom and it was gone,″ he said. ``But I would exchange all Bosnian mosques for final peace in this troubled region.″

Before the war, about 195,000 people lived in Banja Luka _ 54 percent Serb, 14 percent Muslim and 14 percent Croat. Many of the Muslims and Croats fled the country or now live in its Muslim-Croat half. They’ve been replaced by Serb refugees from elsewhere in Bosnia.

Today, only about 4,000 of the 30,000 Muslims remain, and the majority of those live in cellars, garages or orphanages because they have nowhere to go, Hadzihalilovic said.

Catholic bishop Komarica, who lived under virtual house arrest during the war, said only 8,000 of the 30,000 Croats remain.

Voters in today’s elections will be selecting a three-member presidency, joint legislature and separate assemblies for the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb territory. Elections results were not expected for days.

``I’m praying that civilized politicians are elected, not some racists,″ Komarica said. ``But I fear my hopes are too high. I fear extremists will win on all sides.″

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