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Bosnian Serbs step back from confrontation over divisive national holiday

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia (Reuters) - Bosnian Serb lawmakers voted on Tuesday to make a national holiday a purely secular event in a bid to heed a court ruling that it was an act of religious discrimination against the region’s non-Serb inhabitants.

The Jan. 9 holiday, also known as Statehood Day, marks the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared independence from Bosnia, triggering a three-year war in which 100,000 died. It also coincides with a Serbian Orthodox Christian festival.

It was this religious component that led the Constitutional Court in Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo to declare the holiday illegal as it discriminated against the autonomous Serb Republic’s Catholic Croat and Muslim Bosniak communities.

“Based on the confirmed will of Republika Srpska citizens, Jan. 9 has been defined as the Day of the Republic ...(which) will be marked and celebrated as a secular holiday,” read the text of the amended legislation passed by a vote of 57-2.

The brinkmanship over the holiday is widely seen as part of an attempt by Milorad Dodik, the Serb Republic’s nationalist president, to test the limits of his freedom of maneuver against post-war Bosnia’s fragile central authorities.

Bosnian Serbs voted overwhelmingly for the national holiday in a referendum held last month in defiance of the court ban. Critics saw the referendum as a dry run for a subsequent vote on full independence for Bosnia’s autonomous Serb entity.

Bosniak deputies walked out of the Serb Republic parliament ahead of the vote on establishing a secular holiday, saying the day reminded them of Serb war crimes against their kin.

The day before, the same parliament had decorated three Serbs who were convicted of crimes against humanity during Bosnia’s war by an international tribunal in The Hague.

“A new law is a compromise between the referendum and the constitutional court ruling, but Bosnia resembles a broken porcelain vase which all the time someone tries to put together,” said Serb deputy Perica Bundalo, alluding to the Serb nationalist stance that Bosnia is a bogus state.

Bosnia’s other autonomous entity established under the 1995 Dayton peace accords is the Bosniak-Croat Federation.

Bosnian state prosecutors in Sarajevo have launched an investigation into the illegal Serb referendum and summoned Dodik for questioning. He has yet to appear.

Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; editing by Thomas Escritt and Mark Heinrich