“Leave Allah and his faith alone, or the hand of the believer will reach you!”
That was the message -- accompanied by a bullet -- that Emir Suljagic received in an envelope slipped into his mailbox earlier this month. Shortly thereafter, he resigned as education minister for Bosnia-Herzegovina's Sarajevo Canton. He has since left the country, reportedly for Austria, citing safety concerns.
Suljiagic is a survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Serb paramilitaries. But recently he came under intense pressure from Bosnian Muslim hard-liners due to a ruling he made last year that children’s grades in primary school religion classes would no longer count as part of their final annual average grade.
He said the decision was meant to ensure fairness for children who chose not to take religion classes, which are optional in Bosnian schools. But it nevertheless set off a firestorm of criticism from Islamic clerics, including Mufti Mustafa Ceric, leader of Bosnia's Muslim community.
Ceric defended his criticism in an interview this week with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, stressing that if Orthodox Christian Serbs and Roman Catholic Croats have religious education, then so should Muslims.
"It is the minister's duty to also provide religious education for other [non-Muslim] children, that's not my obligation. After all, the parents said in polls that they want it," Ceric said. "But why don't you go to Banja Luka [the capital of Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb Republic] and why don't you ask them why they need religious education? Why do we need the baptism of the [Muslim] Bosniaks? Go to Mostar [which has a large Croat population] and ask them why they need Catholic education."
He added: "It’s only Islam that is a problem for you, it’s only the Muslims’ rights that are problematic. You don't let us raise our children the way we want, even after we were subjected to genocide. You come to this conversation with prejudices.”
Suljagic initially handed in his resignation in May after Ceric had urged Muslims to take to the streets in protest against the minister, in what he called “a Sarajevo Spring.” Suljagic subsequently withdrew his resignation at the insistence of his Social Democratic Party.
The public condemnation and threats continued, however, including an e-mail threatening him and his family with a 100-year religious curse. After receiving the letter with the bullet this month, he decided enough was enough.
Protesters on February 16 decry the events that prompted the resignation Suljagic's resignation.
In a statement announcing his resignation, Suljagic accused unnamed religious officials and the local media of provoking his “public lynching.”
Nermin Niksic, prime minister of the Bosnian-Croat Federation and leader of the Social Democratic Party, called it “shameful” that a public official was forced to resign because of threats. However, the SPD stopped short of taking additional steps in support of Suljagic.
But since he left the country, public support for Suljagic has grown. Several hundred demonstrators, mostly teachers, staged a rally in Sarajevo on February 16. Some criticized Ceric for his role in the scandal.
One of the academics attending the rally, professor Saudin Sivro, said that as the leader of Bosnia’s Islamic community, Ceric has an obligation to publicly distance himself from the threats against Suljagic.
“I want to say we will not be slaves and I only fear God. Ceric should also fear God," Sivro said. "Ask him whether he fears God. If he does, then he should condemn threatening letters with bullets against any citizen, whether that citizen is Minister Suljagic, Saudin Sivro, or somebody else.”
Rizo Turkovic, a teacher, criticized the authorities’ inaction and praised Suljagic’s performance as minister.
"We are not interested in politics, we are interested in our lives," Turkovic said. "We condemn violence and blackmail in the name of all citizens. We express our support for the minister, and condemn the fact he was not allowed to do his job, because he is a competent official who managed to achieve more in one year and implement more reforms than all previous education ministers in the canton.”
The Suljiagic scandal came after Muslim, Serb, and Croat leaders finally managed to form a government on February 10, putting an end to 16 months of political deadlock that brought the country to a standstill following inconclusive elections in October 2010.
Bosnia's new central government, led by Vjekoslav Bevanda, is faced with the challenge of making up lost ground in its bid to fulfill the criteria set by the European Union and apply for EU membership by the end of June.
RFE/RL Balkan Service’s Nedim Dervisbegovic and Darija Fajkovic also contributed to this report