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Father Christmas Not So Welcome In Sarajevo

In a region obsessed with nationalism, identity and symbols, where everything from language to license plates is political, Santa Claus is no exception.

This year, Father Christmas is having a rough time in wintry Bosnia.

On Dec. 19, a day after anchoring a call-in radio show supporting the idea of Santa Claus in Bosnia, Armin Pozderac was beaten up by a band of thugs in broad daylight.

As one assailant barked, “You call that radio?” others pulled Pozderac’s pants down to his knees and kicked him, breaking ribs and causing internal bleeding. Pozderac’s boss, Elvir Bucalo, also was clobbered.

Witnesses identified one of the attackers as a brigade commander in the Bosnian army, strengthening the view of U.N. police that the beating had been ordered by officials in President Alija Izetbegovic’s ruling party.

“Look what they do to people who only say they like Santa Claus,” said Aida Pobric, a producer at Pozderac’s radio station who saw the attack. “This is madness; this is insane.”

The furor over Santa represents a deep divide among Bosnian Muslims - between Izetbegovic’s followers, who, after four years of conflict that played on religious divisions, increasingly reject the idea of a multicultural, Western-oriented society, and those who wish for a modernized, democratic society free from one-party control.

While Santa Claus obviously has nothing to do with Islam and less to do with politics, he does have a lot to do with the West.

Secular Muslim residents of Sarajevo have a fondness for Father Christmas because he symbolizes Europe and the United States. Sharing in those symbols, these people say, brings them closer to a world to which they feel they belong.

Izetbegovic launched the first salvo in this dispute as far back as January, condemning Santa Claus as something “alien to our people” even though the red-suited fellow was extremely popular in Yugoslavia before it fell apart.