Religion and Kosovo
September 1998

Hieromonk Sava Janjic

As opposed to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where abuse of religion directly or indirectly caused the escalation of inter-ethnic conflicts, the religious communities in Kosovo and Metohija can play a much more constructive role in achieving peace and making possible coexistence, and thus preventing the existing conflict from acquiring religious characteristics.

People of the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Islamic faiths have been living in Kosovo and Metohija for several centuries, sharing the tumultuous historic experiences that took place in this part of the Balkans. These communities have played a very important role in building and preserving the national and cultural identity of the region's ethnic groups. Thus, for instance, the Serbian Orthodox Church created and maintained the spiritual identity of the Serb nation, especially during the hardships of Ottoman rule. Furthermore, in Kosovo and Metohija there are over 1,300 Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries of the greatest importance, along with other cultural and historic monuments of extreme significance not only to the Serbs, but also to the other peoples that live here, and to the world as a whole.

Unlike the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serb-Albanian conflict in Kosovo and Metohija is primarily a clash between two national ideologies, and not a clash of two peoples or religions. Religion played a secondary role in the formation of contemporary national consciousness, especially in the case of the Albanians, among whom are members of all three major denominations. On the other hand, the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church has never incited national intolerance, but primarily limited itself to protecting Serb spiritual tradition and culture. The Albanian and Serb Christians frequently rebelled together against the Ottoman occupiers. Because of this and despite all the antagonism and occasional exceptions, there has been a relatively high degree of religious tolerance in the region.

Until recently, the Albanians, both Muslim and Roman Catholic, frequently visited Orthodox holy places and large gatherings and fairs. In addition, many Serbs and Albanians established strong personal ties and visited each other on religious holidays. Unfortunately, owing to increased ethnic tensions in the past several years, all contacts have been reduced to a minimum. However, despite the present grave conditions, representatives of religious communities can now play a very important part in resolving the Kosovo problem and establishing peace.

Activities of religious communities towards establishing peace and advancing coexistence could develop in the following directions:

1. Despite all their religious differences, religious communities ought to clearly demonstrate readiness to pursue a lasting peace based on truth, justice, and respect of human rights. This goal can be achieved only by developing cooperation, personal contacts, and organizing symposiums and debates in the spirit of tolerance and mutual respect for tradition and customs. Religious communities could make an active and sincere contribution to building trust and furthering coexistence.

2. Parallel with the official negotiating process, members of religious communities, academicians, scientists, humanitarian activists, crisis-solving experts, could, by way of unofficial meetings, assist the negotiating process by proposing solutions as well as contribute to the implementation of the agreements reached. Religious communities should distance themselves from all forms of ethnic extremism and religious intolerance, which requires refraining from unbalanced statements, unfounded charges and referring to members of other ethnic groups in a derogatory manner, as well as reducing ethnic animosities by promoting peace and respect for one's fellow men.

3. It is essential to establish cooperation in the area of humanitarian work, especially by creating conditions for the return of refugees and other displaced people. The work of humanitarian organizations and their free access to endangered areas should be openly supported and direct cooperation with them established.

4. In no way should religious communities directly or indirectly incite or justify any use of violence against innocent people, and they should condemn every abuse or violation of basic human rights. In doing so, appeals, official announcements of certain events, and active efforts within their respective communities in fighting violence would be of great assistance. It should be particularly stressed that human life is the greatest gift of God, and that human beings and their dignity should be respected as required by both earthly and divine laws.

5. There should be intense activity against discrimination along ethnic or religious lines. This could be achieved by increasing humanitarian activities and making aid available to all in need of it, regardless of nationality or faith, as well as by protecting ethnic groups which are minorities in certain areas or are otherwise endangered.

6. Special, strong appeals should be made against the destruction and desecration of sacred places (mosques, churches and cemeteries) and cultural monuments. To destroy that which has been preserved for centuries is an act of ultimate barbarism. On the other hand, such places should under no circumstances be used for military purposes.

7. In the area of humanitarian activities, acts of personal vengeance and retaliation, together with the abduction of people and other forms of illegal detention, should be particularly condemned. Strong appeals should be launched against the unnecessary and deliberate destruction of private property: the torching of houses and crops, and slaughter of livestock, and at the same time all assistance available should be offered for the renewal of areas ravaged by the clashes.

8. Religious communities should appeal to news media to prevent provocative and biased reporting on the activities of religious communities, as such reporting often fans the flames of inter-ethnic hate and intolerance. Educational programs on electronic media should not promote quasi-historic theories denying religious and cultural identity to any ethnic group. Abusing and forging history for the sake of political objectives is an injustice which seriously undermines inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations.

9. Religious communities should demand normal contact with their congregations. All attempts to jeopardize religious freedom should be openly condemned and unobstructed activity of spiritual leaders and institutions secured, as well as free access for believers to their places of worship.

We, the representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church, are ready and willing to do everything possible to ensure that these principles are respected and implemented in the spirit of peace and tolerance, and thus create conditions for the restoration of trust. For example, the fraternity of the Visoki Decani Monastery has appealed for peace and a cessation of hostilities on a number of occasions. In addition, the Monastery organized humanitarian aid not only for Serb refugees, but for the Albanian population as well. This could help the monastery bridge the gap between the Serbs and Albanians in the Decani region. We are planning a more ambitious humanitarian project with the IOCC and other humanitarian organizations, both at home and abroad, to assist a greater number of displaced people on both sides.

With a rational and sober attitude, our Church -- and we hope this applies to all other religious communities -- might become a key factor in finding a peaceful resolution and establishing a modern, democratic society in this region. Though deeply bound to their tradition, religious communities must encourage all citizens of Kosovo and Metohija to seek their common interest in the future and in the integration of this part of the Balkans with Europe and the world. Throughout this period, our bishop, Artemije, on many occasions has pleaded with the government to start negotiations as soon as possible, while representatives of our Church presented our peaceful platform in many places, from Washington, to London, to Paris, having been met everywhere with support for our peaceful and non-violent position. It is our deep conviction that the problem of Kosovo and Metohija should be perceived within the context of the wider problem of democratization and human rights in the Balkans, instead of as a local, territorial problem that should be resolved by force. Therefore it is necessary that all citizens of the province actively contribute to finding a solution, acceptable to all the people who live here. This solution should also be in accordance with international charters and law.

The Holy Scripture teaches us that one cannot love God without first loving one's neighbor, and that we should treat other people in the same way that we would like them to treat us. Guided by these basic Christian principles, the Serbian Orthodox Church sincerely believes that all people of good will in this region will find enough strength and will to emerge from this nightmare of war and intolerance, and seek to give an active contribution to democratization and the improvement of everyday life, taking care to preserve their spiritual tradition and cultural and historic heritage.

Or, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: "It is not enough to talk about the peace. One must believe in it. And it is not enough to believe in it. One must work at it."

(The author is a hieromonk in the Serb Orthodox Monastery of Visoki Decani. )
September 1998, BETA