SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — Bosnian Jews and Muslims gathered this week to mark a holiday unique to their city: the 200-year-old “Purim of Sarajevo,” a day they say has bound their two communities together in a model of coexistence.
Two centuries ago in 1819, Sarajevo Muslims rose up against an Ottoman governor who had threatened to kill off the imprisoned elite of the city’s Jewish community.
Jewish and Muslim groups in Bosnia commemorated the bicentenary of this “miraculous deliverance” and hailed their inter-religious bonds at a conference Thursday.
“Bosnian Muslims and Jews are a body, our bonds have been forged both in times of trial and in times of prosperity,” Bosnia’s Grand Mufti Husein Kavazovic said in a message read by his representative at the event.
The Jewish holiday of Purim is traditionally celebrated in early spring to mark the rescue of Jews from persecution under an ancient Persian Empire.
But in Sarajevo, the city’s now tiny Jewish community marks its own Purim every autumn to celebrate the release of the 11 Jews, including a rabbi, who had been locked up in prison.
The Ottoman governor of Bosnia at the time, Ruzdi-pacha, had demanded a huge ransom for their release.
“Muslims in Sarajevo rose up, went outside the prison and threatened to destroy everything and set it on fire if (rabbi) Rav Mose Danon and the others were not released,” Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community in Bosnia, said at the conference.
According to lore, some 3,000 men joined the uprising.
Finci hailed the history, and the largely peaceful coexistence of the two religious groups ever since, as a “model for a normal and common life between Jews and Muslims.”
Sephardic Jews first arrived in Bosnia after they were expelled from Spain in 1492.
They numbered around 12,500 — or up to 20 percent of the city’s population — before the Second World War.
Like other Jewish communities in the Balkans, they were almost completely decimated during WWII by Nazi forces and their allies, who sent them to camps from which they never returned.
Today, a population of around 800 Jews makes up a tiny sliver of a city whose 340,000-strong population is mostly Muslim.