PROZOR-RAMA, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Middle-school campers visiting a mosque wanted to know why women cover their heads and sit separately from men. They asked the imam about the cupola, fountain, and orientation toward Mecca.
A day later, the students quizzed a Franciscan monk about stories recounted in Roman Catholic paintings and stained-glass windows.
For many, it was the first visit to a house of worship outside their own faith. The field trips were organized as part of Camp New Hope, a three-day retreat run by an international team convened by the New Jersey Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Students and teachers from eight schools representing Bosnia's three dominant ethnic groups were invited to explore issues of identity and relationships built on a shared desire for peace.
"Increasingly, children in Bosnia-Herzegovina are growing up isolated from people in other ethnic groups and religious communities," said trip leader Jason Reed, a youth ministry specialist. "They are becoming 'The Other,' a dangerous state of affairs. Getting to know people from 'the other side' and being able to ask questions of their religion in a safe place was a great gift to everyone at Camp New Hope."
In five years as a camp facilitator, I've witnessed moments of grace and unfathomable forgiveness. As children make connections and adults reconcile, hope emerges where once there was misunderstanding, fear and hate.
It all starts with getting reacquainted.
Interfaith discussion, particularly among children, has been rare in the former Yugoslavia since the 1992-95 civil war killed an estimated 100,000 people and separated the country's three main populations: Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Roman Catholic Croats.
"We live in a country - I'm sad to say - that is still divided," said Edin Salosevic, an elementary school English teacher from Visoko in central Bosnia. "Many people have prejudice because they are not the same religion, ethnicity, etc."
The 1995 Dayton (Ohio) Peace Agreement, which ended the war, created a constitution that drew borders and distributed power along ethnic lines. Though at peace, Bosnia-Herzegovina continually struggles with corruption, political dissension, and economic stagnation.
Earlier this year, protesters torched government buildings over the lack of jobs and their perception of politicians' indifference. Last month, Bosnia's commemoration of the event that sparked World War I broke into groups - some lamenting the devastation of Europe after the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and others honoring assassin Gavrilo Princip as a nationalist hero.
In such a divisive climate, how can a country heal from more recent war crimes?
Love your own; respect the other, advised Imam Safet Pozder, who welcomed Camp New Hope participants to his mosque in Prozor-Rama. But first, he said, take time to learn.
Many Bosnians over age 40 remember childhoods in which whole villages participated in various religious and ethnic celebrations, regardless of individual affiliations. Diversity was not only nonthreatening, Reed said, but seen as a strength that contributed to the overall health and vitality of the community.
That spirit of cooperation permeated Camp New Hope, an outgrowth of 15 years of day camps still run by New Jersey Lutherans in Bosnia. Five Bosnians and four Americans (including me) led exercises in leadership, reconciliation, and community building.
Together, the Bosniak, Croat, and Serb students played games, sang songs, and worked on their English. They built "peace puppets" and acted out scenarios to practice conflict resolution. They bonded while cheering Bosnia to a World Cup victory over Iran.
"We are all from different parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina - different nationalities, different religions," said Martina Draganovic, an English teacher from Donja Mahala in northern Bosnia, who attended Lutheran day camp as a teen, became an interpreter, and this year brought her own students. "We got to know each other much better, and we realized we had more in common than we could ever imagine."
The Rev. Gregory Bezilla, an Episcopal chaplain who convenes a Christian-Jewish-Muslim alliance at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, said people are generally afraid to talk about religion or "too polite to notice our differences."
Although Bezilla knows of no formal outcome studies of interfaith encounters, "my own experience is that once young people are given the opportunity to meet someone very different both culturally and religiously, it opens them up in a way that changes them forever. It makes it hard to stereotype."
Participants gain a better understanding of their own beliefs and emerge "better equipped to live with integrity in a world of difference," he said.
By camp's end this year, students and teachers were imagining their role in creating a Bosnia filled with vibrant community centers, better-equipped schools, and a cleaner environment.
"This camp has just shown us that it's possible to live together, to act together, and to make something together that could be very positive for all the society," Salosevic said.
There is, indeed, new hope.
Cynthia Henry is an Inquirer editor. She helps plan and lead the ELCA's annual Bosnia International Servant Trip.
For more information on the camp, see BosniaIST on Facebook or www.servanttrips.org