ERP KIM Newsletter
KOSOVO: CHRISTIANITY BEHIND BARBED WIRE
112 Serbian Orthodox churches were destroyed or seriously damaged
not in war
but during the internationally granted peace in the UN administered Kosovo
Province since 1999
(photo: church in Osojane village damaged by ethnic Albanian extremists in
FORUM 18 NEWS SERVICE, Oslo,
The right to believe, to worship and witness
The right to change one's belief or religion
The right to join together and express one's belief
Tuesday 9 September 2003
KOSOVO: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM SURVEY,
In its survey analysis of the religious freedom
situation in ethnically-divided Kosovo (Kosova in Albanian), Forum 18 News
Service reports on the continuing systematic attacks in Serbian Orthodox
churches, monasteries and graveyards. Although more than 100 have been
damaged or destroyed since the international community took control
in 1999, Forum 18 has found no evidence that anyone has been prosecuted
for these attacks (just as no-one is known to have been prosecuted for
Serbian paramilitary and army attacks on 215 mosques during the 1999
war). Protestant leaders have complained that ethnic Albanian church
members from Muslim backgrounds at times suffer "persecution",
often from family members. The international bodies ruling Kosovo have
done little to promote religious freedom.
KOSOVO: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM SURVEY, SEPTEMBER 2003
By Branko Bjelajac, Forum 18 News Service, and Felix Corley, Forum 18
In ethnically-divided Kosovo (Kosova in Albanian), religious freedom has
suffered because of the conflict. With 90 percent of the population made
up of ethnic Albanians, most of whom are Muslim with a Catholic minority
and a small number of Protestants and adherents of other faiths, ethnic
Serbs are an embattled minority. Mostly Orthodox, their monuments
consist largely of churches, monasteries and graveyards, all of which
have been subjected to a sustained and organised campaign of attack. But
the ethnic polarisation has left other religious minorities vulnerable.
Most members of non-Albanian Muslim minorities in Kosovo (Roma, Ashkali,
Turks, Bosniaks and Gorancis) were forced to flee to Serbia during and
after the 1999 war, but Islamic leaders in Belgrade have complained of
the treatment of the estimated 2,000 that remain. Likewise, Croat
Catholics also fled.
Serbian Protestant pastor Simo Ralevic - who was himself expelled from
Pec (Peja) with other church members in 1999 - told Forum 18 that almost
no Serbian Protestants now remain in Kosovo. Jehovah's Witness leaders
report that all their ethnic Serb members fled the province in 1998 and
1999, but three ethnic Albanian congregations remain. Adventist leaders
told Forum 18 that they have three churches (Pristina, Djakovica/Gjakova
and Pec), with about 200 church members. Jewish leaders told Forum 18
that half the 100 or so Jews fled Kosovo during the war, but 30 of the
50 that remain have a community in Prizren. Hare Krishna representatives
told Forum 18 they have no organised community, only a few individual
Despite Kosovo's status as a de facto international protectorate since
NATO troops arrived in 1999 as Slobodan Milosevic's forces pulled out,
religious freedom has been little protected. The competing mandates of
the international bodies that govern Kosovo - the United Nations mission
UNMIK, the OSCE mission and KFOR - together with the competing authority
of the locally-elected government in Pristina and the Belgrade
authorities that still insist that they have authority means that
religious freedom concerns often fall between the different institutions.
Sunil Narula, a spokesman for UNMIK, failed to respond to Forum 18's
enquiries as to what steps the mission was taking to promote religious
freedom in general and to end the attacks on Serbian Orthodox sites.
Despite its mandate, which specifies that promotion of human rights is
one of its duties, the OSCE Mission has done little to promote religious
freedom, saying it has been forced to concentrate on other issues. "The
OSCE Mission in Kosovo deals with many issues of human rights but
freedom of religion is not one of them," Sven Lindholm, acting
spokesperson at the OSCE Mission, told Forum 18 from Pristina on 20
August. "I cannot disagree with you that freedom of religion is an
important right, yet there are a compendium of human rights issues which
are faced in Kosovo that need direct and continual attention. The OSCE's
primary focus is on minorities, smaller communities, ensuring that
international human rights standards are not only part of legislation
but also implemented."
KFOR's duties in the area of religious freedom consist mainly of
responsibility for protecting Serbian religious sites. "By using a
combination of fixed posts and mobile patrols, we continue to protect
not only historic and religious patrimonial sites (irrespective of their
particular religious or ethnic connections) but also the population and
infrastructure of Kosovo in general," KFOR spokesman Wing-Commander
Chris Thompson told Forum 18 on 28 August.
Life for the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo is difficult, mostly
because the members of this church are Serbs who do not have freedom of
movement and have to live in KFOR and UNMIK protected enclaves. Since
the NATO intervention, 56 historic churches, monasteries and sacral
monuments - some of them dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries -
have been burnt, looted, desecrated and destroyed, as well as 52 of more
In the last year, the most noticeable religious freedom violation facing
Serbian Orthodox believers has been the desecration, looting and
destruction of graveyards, although desecration of churches continues.
In February and March, UNMIK police reported that unknown persons broke
into the Orthodox chapel in the village of Zupce (built in 1938), broke
the icons and desecrated the building.
In May Serbs visited their graveyard in Pec for the first time in four
years, to discover that it had been converted into the city rubbish
dump, half the tombstones had been knocked down, most of the marble
gravestones were missing, and some of the graves had even been opened
and dug in. After three days of cleaning and repairs, the Serbian group
left the site, only to find out the next day that more tombstones were
The Belgrade daily Danas reported on 11 May that "the graveyard in Zahac
was cleaned by a bulldozer, and that in the villages of Babic, Glavcica,
Svrke, Naklo, Brestovik, Ljevosa, Siga, Decani, at the Orthodox
graveyards, there is not a single tombstone left undestroyed. Everything
is also destroyed in Klina, Petric and Drsnik, churches included."
Orthodox sources in Orahovac (Rrahovec) reported on 14 May that local
Albanians were driving tractors through a Serbian cemetery in the
municipality, and that at the graveyard in Kosovska Vitina (Viti) a
wooden cross that marked a grave was set on fire the day after a burial
The Orthodox church in Pristina has been repeatedly attacked since May
(see F18News 15 May 2003). The last attack came on 30 July, when several
people again threw stones at the church and parish house.
On 28 May unknown attackers fired at Spanish KFOR sentries guarding the
Orthodox convent of Gorioc, near Istok, while on 31 May a hand grenade
was thrown at the Greek KFOR checkpoint protecting the St Czar Uros
Church in the town of Urosevac (Ferizaj) in southern Kosovo. Five people
Fr Dragan Kojic from Kosovska Vitina reported on 29 June that fifteen
more tombstones had been destroyed in the village's Orthodox graveyard.
One of the latest incidents was the burning at the graveyard in Bresje,
near Kosovo Polje (Fushe Kosove) where, according to reports, a number
of graves were desecrated in mid-August.
Among recent incidents, on 21 August the Serbian cemetery in the village
of Ponjesh, near Gnjilane (Gjilan), was set on fire, destroying
tombstones and the Orthodox chapel.
In the evening of 27 August unknown persons, for the third time in four
months, damaged the fence and gate in front of the Orthodox church of
St. Demeterius, in the ethnically mixed village of Susica, just east of
Gunfire was reported on 28 August close to Sokolica Monastery during the
Orthodox feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. Pilgrims from
Mitrovica and Zvecan were alarmed by this "provocation which was
intended to spread fear among the Serb congregation", the Church
David Perovic, professor at the Orthodox faculty in Belgrade who
compiled a report on Kosovo for Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle,
declared that "destruction of the graves goes according to an
established routine". He says this includes selling marble gravestones
to local Muslim families for them to be reused as gravestones.
Many in the Albanian community refuse to see anything wrong with
attacking Orthodox sites, pointing out that hundreds of mosques were
destroyed by Serbian military and paramilitary forces during the 1999
war. An illustrated book published by the Islamic community shows 215
damaged or destroyed mosques, some of them up to 400 years old.
Xhabir Hamiti, a lecturer at the Faculty for Islamic Studies in Pristina
and assistant to Kosovo's Chief Mufti, regards the number of damaged or
destroyed Orthodox sites as "very symbolic" in comparison, and even
claims that "no old Serbian monasteries were damaged during or after the
War, even though some of them were under the control of the Kosova
Liberation Army". His views were echoed by an assistant to Catholic
bishop Marko Sopi of Prizren. "It's a reality that Orthodox churches
have been attacked and destroyed," the assistant told Forum 18. "But
also mosques were destroyed. Fewer Orthodox churches have been destroyed
than mosques." He said the Catholic Church has "always" condemned all
Albanians also regard many of the Orthodox churches built in the 1990s
as "provocative" and assertions of Serbian ownership of the province.
"When Milosevic came to power he had total control in Kosovo and during
his government the Serbian Church built many churches in different
regions in Kosovo," Hamiti told Forum 18. "Albanians call them political
churches, because most were built in places where there were no Orthodox
believers, like the church in the centre of the University of Pristina,
which still exists in a very sensitive place."
Many Albanians also regard such attacks as justified reaction to the
Serbian government's earlier attacks on the Albanian population. "The
attacks on Serbian Orthodox churches and graveyards were based not on
religious issues or on religious hatred," Hamiti insists, "but as
revenge for crimes done by Serbs against Albanians in Kosovo, the mass
graves, the burned houses, the 70 percent of burned villages and cities
everywhere in Kosovo."
Although Thompson says KFOR remains "totally dedicated" to its
commitments to defend religious sites, he declined to say how many
people had been arrested and prosecuted for attacking Serbian Orthodox
sites since 1999 (the Orthodox maintain that the number is zero), saying
only that KFOR works "tirelessly with our colleagues in the UNMIK Police
and Kosovo Police Service to support the early detection and successful
prosecution of all criminal acts wherever and whenever they occur".
UNMIK officials likewise were unable to tell Forum 18 how many
prosecutions there had been for attacks on Orthodox sites since 1999. "I
don't recall any prosecutions for this crime, very unfortunately," UNMIK
spokesperson Andrea Angeli told Forum 18 on 27 August. Angeli's
colleague Niraj Singh reported that there had been many acts of arson,
graffiti and throwing stones against Orthodox sites in the last few
years, but said UNMIK did not keep statistics of crimes categorised by
the nature of the target.
Thompson declined to say whether KFOR believed the security of Serbian
sites was improving or worsening, or to elaborate on the process of
handing over security responsibilities to the locally-recruited Kosovo
Police Service (KPS), a body the Serbs regard with great suspicion.
Forum 18 has found no evidence either that security is improving or that
KFOR, UNMIK or the KPS are taking any steps to halt the attacks on
religious sites and track down and arrest the perpetrators. Nor has it
found evidence that anyone has been prosecuted either for attacks on
Serbian Orthodox sites since 1999 (just as no-one is known to have been
prosecuted for the attacks on mosques during the war).
Security concerns restrict the Orthodox in other activities.
"Theoretically, there is no problem building new churches, but in
practice this is not possible anywhere outside the Serbian enclaves," Fr
Sava (Janjic), deputy abbot of the Decani Monastery, told Forum 18. "It
is not possible to rebuild or restore even one of the 112 damaged or
destroyed churches in zones outside the enclaves, because these churches
would be attacked again and destroyed."
He said that in summer 2002 the local Orthodox bishop, Artemije
(Radosavljevic), asked for permission to restore the 14th century
Zociste Monastery near Orahovac. "But we did not get permission from the
German KFOR, because there is a lack of adequate security and also
because of protests from the Albanian Muslim population living nearby."
Only one fourteenth century monastery is being restored at Banjska near
Zvecan, within a Serbian enclave and with finance from the Serbian
Fr Sava added that there is no freedom of movement for Orthodox priests.
"They cannot move freely outside the enclaves and visit churches. These
visitations are possible only if organised in advance and with the
assistance of KFOR or UNMIK police." Nor is it safe for Orthodox
believers to visit graveyards, except on organised visitations. "For
instance, in Prizren, our priest is not allowed to visit his 68
parishioners in their homes. The only way for them is all to come to the
well-protected church building."
Fr Sava declared that according to the law there is no favoured religion
in Kosovo. "But in practice and in daily life, the Serbs and the Serbian
Orthodox Church are at the margin of society and the leading Kosovo
institutions take no care of this community." Symptomatic of this, Fr
Sava complained that the Orthodox Church has no access to Kosovo radio
and TV, and has no media of its own.
However, in Serbian enclaves religious education is organised in
coordination with the Orthodox Church and the Serbian Ministry of
Education, and follows the syllabus in Serbia.
In the 22 Evangelical churches in Kosovo almost all members are ethnic
Albanians and Western missionaries. A July document "Religious Freedom
Report for the Protestant Evangelicals in Kosovo", sent to Forum 18 by
local Protestants, notes that many Kosovar Albanian Protestants are
afraid to declare themselves Protestant Christians for fear of
persecution from local Albanians. Dubbed "secret believers", they attend
church services without the knowledge of their families and communities.
Other Protestants in Kosovo confirmed to Forum 18 that church members
from Muslim backgrounds face intermittent "persecution", including from
Evangelical leaders met Kosovar government officials a number of times
and even discussed their concerns with the prime minister, Bajram
Rexhepi. Two Evangelical churches, in Djakovica and Mitrovica, were
granted licences for church buildings and more new buildings are planned.
However, the report says foreign Protestant missionaries are treated
well and are respected by the general population. "They do not fear for
themselves and for their own safety, but are troubled that the national
believers live in fear with the constant threat of persecution...
Sometimes the entire family is threatened with ostracism even though
only one member is a Protestant believer. This always leads to
intensified family pressure and, on occasion, to actual beatings
suffered by the believer."
The Protestants attribute such pressure to Muslim extremists. "The
radical Muslim fractions causing this suffering attend local mosques and
are hidden and protected by these mosques, whose official line is that
they have nothing to do with extremist groups," the report alleges. "The
general consensus amongst missionaries and national church leaders is
that a more aggressive Islamic movement is increasing."
On 11 May a member of the Evangelical Church in Gnjilane - previously a
Muslim - was severely beaten after receiving several earlier threats. In
anonymous phone calls he was accused of being a "cross-follower" and a
Hamiti for one dismisses such reports of difficulties for ethnic
Albanian Protestants. "Personally I do not have any information that
they experience fear from radical Islamists," he told Forum 18. "Some of
the pastors are my friends and they have never mentioned that to me."
Protestant church buildings have several times been targeted and broken
into, with equipment stolen. "Frequently, although these incidents were
reported to the authorities, police does not investigate them adequately
and does not pursue the perpetrators." The report complains that for
example, those who attacked a church in Pristina in 2001 have still not
been prosecuted, despite the fact that the thieves were recognised and
reported to the police.
Protestants are concerned by new plans to introduce religious teaching
in schools, fearing that it will be dominated by teaching of Islam and
highlight differences with minority faiths. "We believe that the
introduction of religion into the school curriculum would lead to
segregation of faiths in wider society," the Protestant report declared.
"Children would be forced to learn the teachings of religious groups of
which they are not part, inevitably those of Islam, in most of the cases."
Despite calls by Chief Imam Sabri Bajgora and the Council of the Islamic
Community last April for religious education in schools from this
September, backed by a petition reportedly signed by more than 100,000
Pristina residents, Kosovo's government refused to comply. "I do not
believe that the government will agree with this even in the future,"
Hamiti told Forum 18. Yet continuing talk of such religious education
makes religious minorities nervous.
The Protestants fear such plans are part of a growing Islamisation of
Kosovo sponsored from outside. "We are alarmed that there are now an
excess of mosques in proportion to the amount of Muslims that actually
attend them, and these mosques are found in central, visible places,"
the report notes. "These mosques have been built by Islamic groups that
are in Kosova as humanitarian organisations and this causes us concern."
Local Muslims have already complained that damaged mosques were restored
under Arab direction in Saudi undecorated style, in contrast to the
decorated style traditional in Kosovo.
Hamiti appears to share these concerns about the activities of some
foreign groups, although he did not openly identify specific foreign
Muslim charities. "Many government and non-government humanitarian
organisations have entered Kosovo with different programmes which were
not concentrated only on aid, but beside that have contributed and are
still contributing to religious propaganda not compatible with Kosovo
society," he told Forum 18. "I'm concerned that if we are not careful to
stop the activity of same of these organisations in this moment,
tomorrow will be very late and will cause unsolved problems." Hamiti
maintained that such organisations included Christian as well as Muslim
Meanwhile, the assistant to Bishop Sopi, the leader of Kosovo's 65,000
Catholics, told Forum 18 their community has no problems. "We have
excellent relations with the Muslims and we are favoured by the
government," he maintained. He said the Catholics can build new churches
- as they are doing in Pristina. He added that they have no programmes
of their own on Kosovo television, but their activities are reported in
a balanced way. Smaller religious communities - including the Jews,
Jehovah's Witnesses, Adventists and Hare Krishna devotees - told Forum
18 they have encountered no serious religious liberty problems.
Symptomatic of the lack of attention paid to religious liberty is the
failure by two of the major local human rights groups - the Kosovo
Helsinki Committee (a member of the Vienna-based International Helsinki
Federation) and the Council for the Defence of Human Rights and
Freedoms, both based in Pristina - to respond to Forum 18's enquiries.
Hamiti maintains that there are no religious freedom problems, only
But with religion closely tied to ethnicity in Kosovo and a continuing
legacy of bitter mutual hatred between Albanians and Serbs, religious
freedom continues to suffer in the crossfire - and from the lack of any
effort by the international organisations to address the problem.
© Forum 18 News Service. All rights reserved.
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Testimonies of the post-war destruction of
centuries old Orthodox Christian culture in Kosovo and Metohija
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