During the Yugoslav civil wars of the early 1990s, Bosnian Mile Panic saw some of the worst sides of humanity.
He, his father, brother and numerous cousins were taken from their homes to a Serbian war camp at gunpoint on June 20, 1992. Panic …
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From 1991 to 2001, a series of wars occurred among countries that made up the former nation of Yugoslavia in south Eastern Europe. They are often called the Balkans crisis.
Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia fought each other over independence and religious and ethnic tensions. Internal strife also took place in each country.
These wars include the Croatian War of Independence, the Bosnian War and Kosovo War.
Atrocities were committed by many during the conflicts. The wars were the first European wars since World War II to be considered genocidal. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has indicted 161 people for war crimes. The trials continue to this day.
An estimated 130,000 people in the former Yugoslav countries died, according to The Humanitarian Law Center.
Source: International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
He, his father, brother and numerous cousins were taken from their homes to a Serbian war camp at gunpoint on June 20, 1992. Panic stayed there until Dec. 23 of that year and, during that time he said,family and friends were routinely beaten, prisoners were barely given adequate water and food and prisoners came to rely on visits from the Red Cross to survive.
“When I was released, I was given three options — stay in the camp, move to Montenegro or go home,” he remembered. “I decided to go home, but I wasn’t there for long before my family and I realized we had to move.”
After leaving Bosnia and staying in a refugee camp in Serbia with his family, Panic and his family made it to Colorado in November 1995. Once here, they began to look for a community they could call their own.
They found it in their Serbian Orthodox faith, which led Panic to Colorado’s Serbian population.
“Our identity is deeply, deeply rooted in our faith,” said Dusan “Dan” Njegomir, a Colorado native and lifelong member of the Serbian Orthodox faith. “In a way, our situation is similar to Judaism in that the term ‘Serbian’ describes both our faith and identity.”
Serbians have been immigrating to Colorado since the late 19th century, but they never had a place to entirely call their own.
On Sept. 10, Lakewood’s St. John the Baptist church, 9305 W. Cedar Ave., was officially recognized as the first Serbian Orthodox Church to serve Colorado. Bishop Dr. Maxim of the Western American Diocese and Bishop Longin of the Midwestern American Diocese led the consecration ceremony.
“We’ve been blessed with the efforts of our parishioners to get here,” said Father Radovan Petrovic, St. John’s priest. “So many of our members lost everything before coming here, but God has given us the opportunity to be worthy of their labors.”
The consecration was the result of work that began in earnest in 1999, due to the increasing number of Serbian refugees arriving in Colorado. The new Serbian population started organizing and working with church leaders to get an official parish started.
According to research by Njegomir, a member of St. John’s parish, in the early 20th century Serbians attended Russian Orthodox churches in the region and held events at hotels like the Ramada Inn in Greenwood Village.
Father Petrovic moved to Denver full-time in 2007, and from there was able to direct efforts to find a suitable property to call home. The Lakewood site was a former church that had been unused for some time. The parish closed on the property on June 26, 2009.
“Many of our parishioners have experience in construction and similar areas, so they contributed to the renovation work,” Njegomir said.
One of those contributors was Boris Jugovic, president of St. John’s board, who has years of experience in the construction and real estate industries.
Much like Panic, Jugovic left Serbia in the 1990s and came to Colorado because he had family here. After serving in the country’s military as part of mandatory service, he enrolled in college but spent several years struggling to build a life for himself and his family.
“I wanted to come to America so I wouldn’t have to struggle anymore,” he said. “The American dream is only possible here.”
After arriving, Jugovic started working in the construction industry, but wanted to start his own businesses. He learned about the real estate industry, and through hands-on experience started his own investment property company.
“I lost what were supposed to be the best years of my life, from 18 to 25, because of everything that was happening in the country at the time,” he said. “But I was able to start from nothing in America and use the system to get where I am.”
Jugovic’s experience in these industries helped get the church off the ground, and Father Petrovic was able to work with other Serbian churches around the country to get needed materials. A church in Wisconsin, for instance, sold St. John’s the hand-carved iconostas, which is a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church.
St. John’s held its first service for the 200- to 300-person parish in September 2010. Mass is held at 9:30 a.m. on Sundays in English and Serbian.
The Serbian Church is a branch of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which split off from Roman Catholicism in the Great Schism of 1054. The church has bishops who are all considered to be of equal authority — there is no equivalent to the Catholic pope. Eastern Orthodoxy is practiced primarily in Eastern Europe and Greece, as well as by Christians in the Middle East and Africa.
“We’re a very conservative church and require people to adapt to our ways,” Father Petrovic said. “That’s attractive to some people, because we’ve been doing what we do for 2,000 years.”
After finishing the church in 2010, parishioners began plans for a cultural hall and rectory for Father Petrovic and his wife and four children to live in. Construction of the building began in April 2015 and finished a year later.
Now that the church is consecrated, the parish is looking to expand its services. It has already been the site of parishioners’ weddings, baptisms and slavas, which are ceremonies honoring a family’s patron saint on that saint’s feast day.
In attendance at the consecration ceremony on the Sept. 10 were Serbian Orthodox priests from Arizona, Nebraska and Nevada as well as other Orthodox clergy from throughout the Denver area, and Lakewood Mayor Adam Paul, who was invited by Njegomir.
“It was a really informative slice of culture that we have right here in Lakewood,” Paul said. “We’re building an inclusive community here, and the fact that they feel at home here shows we’re a community where all are welcome.”
In a time where many people are discussing the immigrant experience and processes, people like Panic and Jugovic are grateful for the opportunities and community they’ve found in Lakewood and St. John’s.
“The church is what keeps us together,” Panic said. “St. John’s is our house.”
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