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The Role of the Church in the Kosovo Crisis

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After the Dayton peace accords in 1995, terminating the civil war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the attention of the world turned to Kosovo. The international agreement terminating the Bosnian War ignored the problems of Kosovo, where the Albanian majority claimed independence. As their complaints were not addressed, the Kosovars turned from a policy of passive resistance of their moderate leadership to guerilla tactics and violent acts against the Serbian authorities conducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Their activities prompted the State Department to label them a "terrorist group" in February 1998. A year later, however, the Western powers invited the KLA, not the previous moderate leaders, to represent Kosovo at Rambouillet.

As our subject is the role played by the Serbian Church under the leadership of Patriarch Pavle, we will stress its activities here. Among the spokesmen we must single out Bishop Artemije of the Raska-Prizren Diocese, who has been particularly articulate in expressing the views of the church in Kosovo. We must also mention Father Sava of Decani, who speaks English, commands the computer, and has played a crucial role in outreach.

The church assembly convened in Prizren in August 1997 criticized the activities of the Serbian special forces as well as of the Albanian KLA. As for the KLA aim of independence for Kosovo, they warned that this "would immediately produce large scale instability in the whole region, resulting in a disastrous multiethnic war." The church urged that ethnic Albanians would be able to find a satisfactory status in a "democratic Serbian state." They recognized that this ideal was far from the Milosevic regime.

By 1998, the conflict was in full force. Church spokesmen repeatedly criticized the excessive use of force by the Milosevic police and paramilitaries in Kosovo, but also denounced the KLA, which had started murdering Serbian policemen and ethnic Albanians who they thought were cooperating with Serbian authorities. They strongly condemned the role of the KLA in abducting civilians. Three months before bombing started, the KLA clearly had already declared war on the Serbs in Kosovo.

In February 1999, the international community called a meeting in Rambouillet, outside Paris, to stop he conflict. The negotiators were dealing with the self-appointed KLA leaders and representatives sent by Milosevic. As the representative of the Patriarch, Bishop Artemije tried to reach the negotiators. He tried to represent the viewpoint of the local Serbian population and the church in this ecclesiastical center, even to be an observer, but was rebuffed by Milosevic and by the diplomats. The church delegation got as far as Paris, where it was received by a staff member of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Here they presented a plan for the cantonization of Kosovo, based on respect for ethnic distribution and cultural heritage. They proposed that five cantons be reserved for the mixed population of Serbs, Slavic Moslems and others. The great majority of the cantons would be allotted to Albanians where they were a distinct majority. The multiethnic towns could serve as bridges connecting the Serbian and Albanian cantons into a whole. If this plan had been realized, Kosovars and Kosovci might have been spared much suffering.

What made the Rambouillet plan unacceptable to Milosevic was a secret codicil giving NATO representatives the right to free access to any part of Yugoslavia, to occupy the whole country. No national leader could have accepted such a capitulation, and in the agreement terminating hostilities on June 10 this demand was rescinded. The codicil recalls the Austrian ultimatum in 1914, demanding access to Serbian institutions and leading to the outbreak of World War. After the failure to procure Serbian assent, the bombing of Kosovo by NATO began almost immediately.

The Milosevic government treated the critical statements and actions of Patriarch Pavle and Bishop Artemije of Prizren as treasonous and dismissed them. When Alexii II, Patriarch of Moscow, went with Patriarch Pavle to call on Milosevic, the Serbian leader "stood demonstratively with his back turned to Patriarch Pavle."

The "precision bombing" led to unintended consequences, which we will not detail here. We may note that the United States and its allies carefully timed the attack on Iraq to avoid Ramadan, the Islamic holy season, so as not to offend the Muslims. However, there was no such sensitivity here; the bombers were out full force on both Western and Orthodox Easter. In a challenging article in the London Times (Oct. 12, 1999), "Robin Cook's Wasteland," Simon Jenkins concludes that Yugoslavia was the victim of two mistakes, "one by its own rulers, the other by NATO." After the bombing "NATO merely shrugged and turned elsewhere. The Danube Ð''blocked for twenty years'? Who cares?"

Disaster did not end with the termination of bombing and the arrival of NATO occupying troops. It was soon clear that the returning Albanian refugees claimed the whole territory for themselves, driving out and killing the local population. The KLA went beyond revenge killings to trying to eliminate all traces of Serbian culture in the region by systematically looting, bombing and burning churches and monasteries. Patriarch Pavle, who before his selection as patriarch in 1991 had been Bishop of Kosovo for thirty-four years, warned that "these acts of vandalism cannot be called acts of individual and blind revenge. It is becoming increasingly evident that there is a systematic strategy in the background to annihilate once and for all traces of Serb and Christian culture in Kosovo."15 By the end of 1999, some eighty Orthodox churches had been destroyed.

Recently the church has compiled a list of sites destroyed since June 1999. The most ancient of them include:

The 14th-century Holy Trinity Monastery, near Suva Reka, looted, set on fire and finally destroyed by explosives.

The 14th-century St Cosma and Damian Monastery, Zociste (with frescoes). Monastic quarters looted and set on fire in June. Church destroyed by explosives Sept. 21.

Church of the Dormition, Suva Reka, built in 1315, destroyed by explosives. Regarded as one of the most beautiful examples of Byzantine style in Kosovo.

The Monastery of St Mark, Korisa, 1467, vandalized and set on fire.

The Monastery of Archangel Gabriel in Binac, 14th-century, with frescoes, set on fire and almost completely demolished.

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