Radio Free Europe RL - INTERVIEW

09. Decembar 1998.  
Serbian version 



Fr. Sava in his office
Hiermonk Sava Janjic

Hiermonk Sava, Deputy Abbot of Visoki Decani Monastery 
Moderator: Srdjan Kusovac
I have found a record that before the Second World War there lived about 7.500 Serbs and Montenegrins on the territory of the present Decani Municipality. This spring it was published in Belgrade that the last two Serbs left Decani villages and that in those villages there were no more Serbs or Montenegrins. Are not many Serbian Orthodox monasteries in similar situation in Kosovo? How does monastery life function while totally surrounded by Albanians? 

Hiermonk Sava: 
We are trying to live a normal life. In these difficult circumstances it is not so easy and we share the suffering of the local population. As you said, in the villages around Decani there are no more Serbs. They all left their homes in April. First they fled out of fear, then pressures and threats began, and some people were arrested or even killed (by the KLA). At the moment the Albanian population is slowly returning where it is possible, to homes that have been preserved. Unfortunately the Serbs cannot return to their homes because they are all destroyed. It is likely they would have returned and rebuilt their houses, however, at the moment, there is no one to guarantee them security around Decani, in the area between Pec, Decani and Djakovica, and so they still live in a refugee camp near the monastery. 

In the course of eighties official Serb media often reported that Albanians damaged property of the Kosovo Monasteries. Does the Decani Brotherhood have such problems now? 

Hieromonk Sava: 
I have been in Decani Monastery since 1992 and since then we really have not had any problems with the local people, either Albanian or Serb. We tried to have good relations with everyone and I would truly err by saying that we have had damage or unpleasantness from the local Albanian population. However, I heard from the monks and nuns from other monasteries that before I arrived to Kosovo there had been difficulties, especially in the period prior to 1989. Especially from 1981 to 1989 (the period of Albanian autonomy) there were rather unpleasant and difficult incidents for our people and monastics in Kosovo; just to mention the burnt residential quarters of the Patriarchal Monastery in Pec and the problems which the nuns had in Devic and Holy Trinity convents. There were other cases as well. But from 1989 onwards, at least in Decani, I can say that we have not had any difficulties. 

How does everyday life look, with you on one side and the Albanian population on the other? You, I suppose, meet them constantly. How is it? 

Hiermonk Sava: 
Even before the armed conflict in Kosovo began we tried to have good relations with both Serbs and Albanians in Decani. During the fighting we were helping not only the Serbian population but also the Albanian, at least in Decani where we could move safely. Of course, we could not go around to the villages in that time. You can imagine what it was like then. We took food, medicines and other essentials to suffering people. We were with them during the most difficult times. The Abbot and me often went to Albanian homes and encouraged them to stay in their homes. As well as the Serbs should stay in their homes it also important for our neighbors to remain in their homes and their land so that we could live together in peace and tolerance. Therefore, I can say that we have very good relations with all. Even today both Serbs and Albanians come to our monastery. In my opinion, Visoki Decani Monastery is an important bridge between the Serb and Albanian people and gives both hope for a better future. The intention of our brotherhood, in these conditions, is to work actively to build confidence, tolerance, peace and a joint life and not to provoke violence and intolerance in any way. 

That is exactly what I’d like to talk about a bit more. The brotherood of your Monastery has called for peace several times. On the other hand Bishop Artemije of Raska and Prizren has also been abroad many times in regards to the Kosovo situation. He addressed the EU Parliament, talked to US Congress members. All these activities are much unlike what the authorities in Belgrade do and even the Serbian Orthodox Church as a whole. How do you explain that the representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo act differently from the authorities, and even from Church officials in Belgrade? 

Hiermonk Sava: 
First of all we understand that our duty, as a Church, is to influence that problems in Kosovo and Metohija are resolved in a peaceful and non-violent way, through democratic institutions and dialog. That is our basic position and we supported this idea before the armed conflict started and we are doing that now after all that has happened. We also think that the fighting should be stopped immediately and hope that the truce will be preserved. I would not say that there is any difference between the official position of the Serbian Orthodox Church and what we are doing here in Kosovo, because the Synod of Bishops has issued several statements on Kosovo and Metohija and clearly showed that it fully supports our positions. Bishop Artemije had the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Pavle for all his peace missions to US and Europe and the members of the Synod have been well informed about our work. Therefore, I think that our activities are coordinated and that there are no essential differences. After all, the Church should be a factor of peace and stability. We must work on rebuilding confidence and the establishment of communication between the Serbian and Albanian people. Of course, all problems must be resolved without violence because in violence it is usually the innocents who suffer the most. With such ideas we appeal to both the authorities in Belgrade and the political representatives of the Kosovo Albanians. Both sides must comply to generally acceptable principles because only in that way we can resolve the existing difficulties. 

You say, therefore, that there are no differences. However, following the foreign press and the media, I can tell you that some influential Western media have reported much more about what specifically you and your brotherhood do than about all other activities of the Serbian Orthodox Church. How do you comment on that? Aren’t you perhaps more explicit in articulating your ideas? Or are you doing that in a different way? Tell me something about it? 

Hiermonk Sava: 
Well, perhaps our voice is louder because we have had many contacts here with foreign diplomats, journalists and observers. Everyday we have visitors to our monastery who come to us and want to learn about our positions. We are trying to be quite open about all issues. Perhaps our public relations are more active here on the ground than elsewhere and that is why the voice of Visoki Decani Monastery was better heard. But I must say that it is our Bishop Artemije of Raska and Prizren who gives the main tone to our work. He has been abroad many times and we went together to some of his missions. Recently, the Synod of Bishops has issued a statement on the Kosovo situation. We have also had better communication with the public because we’ve been on the Internet and are using other modern means of communication. Our Church here has very active contact with various people, journalists and diplomats in Kosovo. 

In one of your interviews to a Belgrade newspaper this summer you said that Slobodan Milosevic made a mistake because he did not introduce more democracy in Serbia. On that occasion you even called Vice-Prime Minister Seselj “the extremist who bears a good deal of responsibility”. It is quite uncommon among the Serbs that Church representatives directly criticize the authorities in such a way. I can remember that in the course of the last ten years it was done several times by Bishops Amfilohije and Atanasije as well as Bishop Artemije in the recent period. When we compare that with the situation in Croatia we can see that the new Archbishop of Zagreb Josip Bozanic is one of the most energetic and most serious critics of President Tudjman’s authority. Why, in your opinion, has Patriarch Pavle not criticized the Serbian authorities since you claim that what you are doing is identical to the official position of the Serbian Orthodox Church? 

Hieromonk Sava: 
His Holiness Patriarch Pavle has said in many of his statements that certain practices and positions of some political leaders in Serbia and FRY are in opposition to the ideas supported by the Serbian Orthodox Church and himself as its religious leader. Therefore, in an indirect way, the Patriarch has criticized certain unacceptable positions and activities. Perhaps we have been clearer in articulating our criticism. For us here, politics is no luxury. It is a question of our everyday life because we practically depend on what politicians decide. Our survival here in Kosovo and Metohija, the life of our parishioners and our people who live near the monastery depend on their political decisions. Therefore, being critical towards the representatives of our political life and their positions we did not want to judge them personally, because everyone has right to think and do what he thinks is the best. We only wanted to be clear that some political ideas are not acceptable from the Church point of view and do not lead to a peaceful solution. We must be aware of the times in which we live. We do need more democracy, more openness for new political realities in Europe and the world. Our country should be more open to the world and Europe to which we belong, geographically, culturally and in every other respect. We believe, and Bishop Artemije himself has often indicated that if Serbia and FRY had in time started with democratization and integration in European structures, the existing problems, especially those in Kosovo and Metohija, could have been prevented. It is a general opinion of many representatives of the international community that the key of the solution and the only possible lasting solution of the problems in K&M and the entire Balkans is the process of democratization. That means building of democratic institutions, freedom of media and thought. Extremist nationalists and supporters of violence would be isolated in that way and would not enjoy support of the majority of population. Regrettably, at the moment we have quite a different situation on the ground. Due to absence of real democracy and real freedom of media, extremist ideas still enjoy wider support of the people. Such ideas are louder than peace appeals. Therefore the voice of moderates, the people who are ready for compromise, is still very silent. This is, in fact, one of the main problems. But still, it is not too late. Speaking critically about certain issues we are calling the authorities and party leaders to turn towards the process of democratization because it is the only way to resolve all existing problems. 

What you have just said and generally what the Serbian Orthodox Church has been doing in the last two, three, four years is much different from the positions of the Serbian Orthodox Church at the beginning of the war in Croatia and later in Bosnia and Hercegovina. It is known there was never a public condemnation of ethnic cleansings. Some priests have even called for the creation of ethnically cleansed territories in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina. Fr. Filaret from Zemun even took part in the units which were engaged in fighting and spoke about it openly on the TV. What is your view on that now? Has there occurred some change in positions of the Serbian Orthodox Chruch or it is simply the consequence of the different time in which we live now? 

Hieromonk Sava: 
In the Serbian Orthodox Church as well as in any other institution there are people with different positions and views. We are not a centralized organization in which the way of thinking is dictated from above. Of course it does not refer to our religious and dogmatic teaching which is compulsory for all who believe in Orthodox way. However, there are individuals in the Church who have their own political views and their private attitudes. We must have in mind that the Church in these last fifty years was very isolated and found itself in an extremely difficult position. Economically it was quite exhausted because all Church property had been confiscated by the communists, so the Church was just trying to survive on the edges of public life. At the end of eighties and the beginning of nineties there took place certain changes in our political life and the Church was dragged out from the catacombs before the lights of the reflectors. Bishops appeared on the TV, they gave interviews. In short, the Church became present in the media and public life as never before. 

Some Church officials could not find their way easily in such a new situation. On the other hand some politicians tried by all means to exploit the Church and its authority among the people as a kind of cover and alibi for their political goals. The people who were notable representatives of the communist authorities became the leading nationalists and “Great Serbs” overnight. They needed support of the Church that could only give true legitimacy to their nationalism. 

Of course, the Church never officially and consciously accepted such a role and there always existed a resistance towards such tendencies. Nevertheless, some individuals, out of naiveté or perhaps out of their personal inability to understand backroom intrigues, gave some statements which could lead to a conclusion that the Church supported ethnic cleansing and violence. But that has always been the matter of these individuals and not the Church as a whole. I personally know that Patriarch Pavle and many of our bishops often spoke openly against violence. But that message could not easily reach ordinary people because it was not interesting to the state media and critical attitudes were not profitable for those political forces that were engaged in the war. 

Also I can remember that on all Bishops’ Conferences, especially during the Bosnian war, there were energetic critical tones towards the official policy. But the state controlled media would never report the entire statements, or would omit passages containing criticism. In that way there appeared a false impression that the Church was supporting the official policy of Belgrade. Sometimes the statements of certain  Church officials would be given such publicity in the media and were presented as the official position of the Chruch. In that way the authorities wanted to create a picture which would help to mobilize the entire Serbian nation around extremist and unrealistic political ideas which, as we have seen, have not brought any good either to Serbs or to others. 

I know very well that in our Church there have always been honest people who were aware of what was happening and who reacted with full Christian and human responsibility in such moments, as our Patriarch often says “who remained human beings till the end”. We must have in mind that some Church officials also did not know exactly what was going on because, there was media isolation in our country. Even if they would hear some information from the independent Western media, they would be very suspicious and would not believe it because there was a general prejudice that the news from the Western sources were not true and were directed against our people. In any case I would not like to be apologetic of individual political ideas and irresponsible acts of some Church people, I dare say but with full responsibility that the Serbian Orthodox Church has never and will never officially support anything which is opposed to the spirit of the Gospel and our Christian faith. 

When the Patriarch was once accused by foreign journalists that the Church was supporting violence in Bosnia he humbly uttered these memorable words which fully picture the Orthodox Christian point of view: „If Greater Serbia should be created upon a crime, I am against that Greater Serbia. If Serbia proper could survive only on crimes, let it disappear forever. And if there should remain the last Serb in the world at the price of a crime, and if I were that Serb, I would not accept it. Better a dead but honest man than a living criminal.” 

How do you see the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church and other religious communities in the territory of former Yugoslavia, that is in the region which has experienced terrible wars. When we speak about the Serbian people, it is probably in one of the most difficult positions in its history and its existence. Therefore, where do you see the role of the Chruch? Can the Chruch help to calm tensions and bring the people back to a normal European way of life? 

Hieromonk Sava: 
Absolutely, yes. I think that the Church has a key role in the forthcoming period. There have been attempts to abuse our religion and our spiritual tradition to justify certain political positions which are in direct opposition with the democratic norms and the reality which we have today in Europe and the world. The Church, if it made a proper distance from the extremist policy and irresponsible individuals, could help a great deal to our people to chose the right path towards the 21st century. Our primary goal, of course, is to preserve the religious integrity of our people and in the same time to bear witness of the Orthodox faith to all people of the world. But the Church can and should support certain positive changes in political and economic life as well. 

Here in Kosovo and Metohija we openly support the idea that democratization of Serbia and Montenegro i.e. Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the entire Balkan region is one of the essential preconditions for the resolution of all political problems in this part of Europe. At the moment this region is like a black hole in the middle of Europe which is on the path of integration and cooperation. The Orthodox Church can help a great deal in this region to leave the state of political isolation and poverty and enter normal processes which we must not be afraid of. Of course, no political idea is perfect but democracy is much better from what we have here now. True democracy and freedom are much better than suffering, war and destruction. 

Our Church has also made an initiative that the leaders of the religious communities in Kosovo, Orthodox, Moslem and Roman Catholic, should openly commit themselves to support peace, tolerance and understanding. This is not a confessional cooperation or ecumenism. Our intention is not to allow extremists to use religion for destructive political goals. I think that this is a very important project and we are going to work more on it. I also think that all religious communities on the territory of ex-Yugoslavia can help to ease tensions. They can affirm the awareness that only through joint life, mutual understanding, building of democratic institutions and society, freedom of thought and media we can survive together and, even more, make important progress. 

My last question refers to Orthodoxy. I have read that you have studied the English language and literature and that members of the Decani brotherhood are young people who, before becoming monks, acquired a high education. You behave in an unusual way for monks. You travel around the world, use the Internet... and you speak in quite a different way than other monks and priests in the Church do. We are witnesses that the Catholic Church has adapted to the modern age a lot. They are discussing the problems of abortion, divorce etc. On the other hand the Orthodox Churches would not even adopt the Gregorian Calendar which has been used for hundreds of years by most people. Why is Orthodoxy taking so long to join the modern age? 

Hieromonk Sava: 
Let me be clear on this point. We, Orthodox monks, are known as traditionalists in questions of faith. We are trying to preserve our religious doctrines and the tradition from the spirit of this world which has in many ways marginalized Christian values. Today we are also witnesses of a gradual transformation of Christianity into a humanistic and social ideology which is slowly losing its intrinsic Christian flavor. We are openly against such trends. When you come to Visoki Decani you will attend the services served in the way as they have been served for centuries in the Holy Mountain in Greece. We tend not to use electricity in the church but only wax candles. We avoid introducing technical appliances in church rituals. In fact our idea is to preserve that subtle spirit of the Orthodox Christian tradition which can be so easily lost in the surrounding of contemporary modern life and technology. 

However, on the other hand, we are very open for the use of modern technology in our everyday life. Near the church are our offices where you can see our computers, Internet connection and other modern equipment. Besides, when I travel I usually take my lap-top computer which helps me stay in contact with my monastery and our friends all over the world. Although we live a monastic life we are using modern technology which is quite understandable since we live in this time. You will probably remember that the first printing press was brought to Cetinje, Montenegro, not long after Gutemberg’s invention. It was brought there by Orthodox monks. You can only imagine what kind of a technological revolution that was when the monks brought such a modern device to the Montenegrin mountains. Therefore, we try to make a clear difference between our faith and our everyday life. We are ready to use hi-tech devices in our everyday life but we do not want to allow the spirit of this world to dominate our faith and transform it into something else. With our visitors we openly talk about all problems. Patriarch Pavle recently initiated a discussion about AIDS, that tragical and frightful contemporary disease, especially regarding the Holy Communion of HIV positive patients and the relationship of the clergy towards them. Especially among the younger generation of monks and priests in the Serbian Orthodox Church there is a great eagerness to cope freely with all contemporary issues, but in a traditional way. Only in that way we can preserve the spirit of the faith which we inherited from our ancestors.