BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Over 10,000 people turned out Saturday for the re-opening of a mosque in Bosnia that was blown up by Christian Orthodox Serbs during the 1992-1995 war and that became a symbol of the effort to destroy Bosnia's centuries-long multireligious fabric.
The Ferhat Pasha mosque — also called Ferhadija — was a masterpiece of 16th-century Ottoman architecture and one of the 16 mosques in Banja Luka — or one of the 534 throughout the country — that were destroyed or damaged by Bosnian Serbs in order to erase any traces of those they were expelling or killing.
Their aim was to make that part of Bosnia a apart of neighboring Serbia.
The so-called "ethnic cleansing" project, also targeting Roman Catholic Croats and other non-Serbs, included expelling people from their homes, looting their property, killing some and putting others in concentration camps.
The destruction of their heritage was an essential part of the plan, aimed also at discouraging survivors from returning.
In 1995, after over 100,000 people were killed, a peace agreement divided the country in two halves — one for the Serbs, where Banja Luka ended up, and the other shared by Croats and Muslim Bosniaks. The agreement guaranteed refugees the right to return to their prewar homes and reconstruction of the Ferhadija mosque was to encourage the plan.
But an attempt in 2001 to lay a foundation stone was disrupted by a Serb nationalist mob. One Muslim visitor was killed and dozens were injured.
NATO forces had to evacuate foreign ambassadors from the ceremony by helicopters.
Activists located fragments of the mosque that were not thrown into the river or the garbage dump, separated them and used computers to place the over 3,500 fragments where they belong. Reconstruction took 15 years.
On Saturday — the 23rd anniversary of the Ferhadija destruction — Bosnian Serb authorities deployed over 1,000 policemen to secure the event, attended by outgoing Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Bosnian leaders, foreign ambassadors and representatives of the Roman Catholic, Serb Orthodox Churches and the Jewish Community.
The event symbolized a further push to restore Bosnia's multifaith and multi-ethnic fabric. Turkey and other international donors as well as Serbs donated funds for the reconstruction.
During the war, Serbs often referred to Muslims as "Turks," explaining their actions as revenge for hundreds of years of Ottoman occupation.
At the ceremony in Banja Luka, Davutoglu said: "We were here once, we are here now and we will always stay here."
Jakob Finci, leader of Bosnia's Jewish Community, said in his speech that rarely a Jew speaks at the opening of a mosque but in Bosnia it was possible. He as well as Catholic bishop Franjo Komarica and Serb Orthodox priest Jefrem welcomed the opening of the mosque and the people who will pray in it.
"Our differences are not a historical mistake," said Husein Kavazovic, the leader of Bosnia's Islamic Community. "They are God's gift, and any violence against those differences is an act against God's will."