Decani Abbot Fr. Teodosije asks protection from the institutional repression
of an Albanian court in Decani

VISOKI DECANI
SERBIAN ORTHODOX MONASTERY

Decani, August 13, 2002


H.E. Michael Steiner
Special Representative of the UN
Secretary General for Kosovo
UNMIK, Pristina


Dear Sir,

On June 28, 2002, the local Decani Municipal Court, presided by Judge Haki Baljaj and consisting only of ethnic Albanians, annulled the decision of the Government of the Republic of Serbia from 1997 restituting to the Monastery of Visoki Decani a part of the land which was nationalized illegally and without compensation in 1946.

The decision was brought despite the letter of the former SRSG, Dr. Bernard Kouchner, who gave clear instructions to his Regional UN Administrator of Pec Mr. Alain Le Roy in year 2000 that any disputes concerning the ownership of the land and of former socially owned enterprises should be ultimately adjudicated by the Housing and Property Directorate set up by UNMIK Civil Administration. Later UNMIK regulation 2000/3 transferred jurisdiction in matters to the Transitional Department for Trade and Industry (TDTI). Therefore, legal resolution of this issue certainly does not belong in a local municipal court.

On the other hand the decision of the Decani Municipal court is contesting the legality of the decision by the Serbian Government which restituted a part of the formerly owned monastery land in order to correct injustice which had been done to the monastery under the repressive laws in 1946. These laws can by no means be considered as a valid legal basis on which K/Albanian authorities may claim now the land which historically has always belonged to the Monastery of Decani, since its foundation in the 14th century, and which was legally registered after the decision of the Government in 1997 as private monastery property in the Land register.

Visoki Decani Monastery considers the decision of the Municipal court in Decani as an example of institutional repression against the last remaining Serb community in Decani Municipality and a provocation to the international authorities in Kosovo and Metohija. Supporting the right of local Kosovo courts to adjudicate land issues concerning the property of religious communities and former socially owned enterprises would make a dangerous precedent which would inevitably result in legal disorder and usurpation of large tracts of Serb owned land.

This decision is therefore in direct function of further destabilization of the security situation and is seriously challenging confidence building between Kosovo's communities.

We are kindly asking You to study this issue and make a timely decision which would be in function of justice and peaceful coexistence of Kosovo's communities. We also ask You to consider preparation of appropriate legislation regarding the property of religious communities which were damaged by the repressive laws after the Second world war. Regulating the right of religious communities for restitution of their property (which has not yet been privatized, of course) would be of great significance not only for the Serbian Orthodox Church but also for other Kosovo religious communities. The right of private ownership must be respected if we all want to build a democratic society.

In order clarify the problem we are enclosing a detailed survey of the Decani Monastery Land issue with a special reflection on the future of the Serbian Patrimonial Sites in post-war Kosovo. All relevant documents regarding this case have already been forwarded to Your office.

Sincerely Yours

Visoki Decani Monastery Abbot
Fr. Teodosije Sibalic

The Areal View
The monastery property with the neighboring fields and forests
in the valley of the Bistrica river

The Visoki Decani Monastery Land Issue
Long-term survival and protection of the monastery


Historical significance of Decani Monastery

The Monastery of Visoki Decani, as one of the most important Serbian Orthodox monasteries, since its foundation has been of great historical and spiritual significance for the survival and life of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its faithful people in the region of Kosovo and Metohija. With the intent of providing for the economic and spiritual survival of the monastery, its founder, the Holy King Stefan of Decani, issued the famous Decani Charter of 1330, bequeathing to it numerous properties and estates, as well as 89 villages throughout the region of Polimlje, Metohija and Altine, the southern slopes of the Prokletije Mountains, in today's Albania. In Turkish times a large part of this property was taken away and the brotherhood retained ownership of only a small part of the monastery lands.

According to land registry data prior to 1946 Decani Monastery owned 808 hectares of land (1996 acres; 1 hectare = 2.47 acres), of which 208 hectares was cultivable or tillable land, and 600 hectares was forest. This land was located in the immediate vicinity of the monastery as well as in the region of the former districts of Podrimlje, Djakovica, Pec and Istok. The monastery was also the owner of a house in Decani called "Mermer".

Unjust confiscation of monastery land in 1946

All this property was used and owned by the monastery until 1946 when it was confiscated from Decani Monastery without any compensation by a decision of the "Executive District People's Assembly for Kosmet" (number 2649 dated June 28, 1946). The monastery administration filed an appeal against this decision to the "District Agrarian Court for Kosmet" in Prizren, which issued a decision (number 1716 dated the same day) upholding the decision of the Executive District People's Assembly and finally took away almost the entire property of the Monastery of Visoki Decani. The monastery was allowed to keep for its use a maximum of 60 hectares, of which 30 hectares was forest and 30 hectares was cultivable or tillable land but in scattered locations and largely in areas already inhabited by Albanian immigrants who came from Albania and settled on Serb land during World War II. Through these decisions the monastery thus obtained: five hectares of vineyards, 0.5 hectares of forest and 0.5 hectares of garden in Velika Hoca; nine hectares of cultivable or tillable land in Decani near the monastery; 15 hectares of land in the village of Istinic, and 30 hectares of forest near the monastery. In actuality the monastery had control of only some of the land left.

The land received in the village of Istinic was already largely illegally appropriated by the Albanians who built their houses on it and farmed it. Having no legal or economic protection or any possibility of realizing its right to use its land, the monastery administration had no option but to accept the status quo and to sell its land in Istinic to the squatters already on it at symbolic prices determined by the squatters themselves, far below the market value of the property. Thus the monastery was left with only 15 hectares of cultivable or tillable land.

Of the nine hectares of land left to the monastery in its immediate proximity, one part includes the ravine near the Bistrica River. Thus the monastery makes active use of only 7.5 hectares (18.53 acres) of cultivable land.

Decani Monastery
Visoki Decani Monastery - one of the most important
Serbian Orthodox shrines in Kosovo and Metohija

Communist authorities build on monastery land

Behind all this one can discern the clear intent of the authorities at that time to endanger the economic and spiritual survival of the monastery as much as possible. Instead of leaving 30 hectares of cultivable land for the monastery in its immediate proximity, the state took away 12 hectares of the best monastery land, splitting up the monastery estate, and gave this area to the Poultry farm in Decani. Later a modern honey-packing facility was built on this land by the "Apiko" Beekeepers' Cooperative. The production process has not taken place for more than 10 years in this formerly successful cooperative due to its enormous debts and the plant can de facto be considered bankrupt. In addition to this, another land tract in the very middle of the property was subsequently confiscated and in the 1950's turned over to B. Vulic, the administrator of Decani municipality; consequently, the monastery was forced to buy back its land in the attempt to preserve the integrity of its estate. Land which even the Turks had not confiscated from the monastery during centuries of enslavement was unjustly taken away during the post-World War II period and then sold back to the monastery at a dear price.

In immediate proximity, 200 m. above the monastery, several land tracts of pine forest were also taken which had been planted at the beginning of the century by Russian monks, as well as the area up to the infirmary in Decani. Evidence that this land has always been owned by the monastery includes the remnants of the small church of St. Nicholas as well as existing land registry documents. After expropriation this land was used to construct a small hotel called Visoki Decani. In 1984 construction began and soon ceased (in 1988) of a larger hotel building which has remained unfinished. The Visoki Decani Hotel has not been used as a tourist-hospitality facility for years. First the building was appended in a very murky manner to the "Sloga" hotel-tourist company from Pristina; later this relationship was severed by decision 1102 dated October 5, 1994. Afterwards the hotel was used by the "Rad" construction company to house workers who were building refugee settlements for Serbs from Albania proper in the vicinity of Decani. During the recent war the building was partially damaged and looted; today, three years after the war, the hotel is completely abandoned. Several times local KFOR has encountered local Albanian villagers removing the roof beams and anything else remaining within the hotel. Due to the condition it is in, the building is no longer suitable for use.

Behind the attempt to build a tourist-hospitality facility near the monastery was the obvious intent to transform this area into a tourist and hotel complex and thus directly endanger the survival of the monastery which would have finally been transformed into a museum.

In addition to this, the house in the center of Decani known as "Mermer" was taken away from the monastery. The ground floor of the building housed the town library while the upper floor was divided into eight rooms where four Serb families lived. These "apartments" were not converted to private ownership. After the war the house was inhabited by Albanians and a year ago, in the summer of 2001, it was demolished by the local municipal authorities, although at that time it was already in the ownership of the monastery.


Visoki Decani Monastery in the 18th century

Monastery brotherhood seeks return of its property

Since its property was taken away the brotherhood of the Monastery of Visoki Decani has asked many times that the state return its illegally seized property but the authorities remained steadfastly determined not to hear its appeals. Especially strong request was made by the former Decani Abbot Fr. Justin in 1991. but it was flatly refused by the Milosevic controlled administration.

In 1992 the monastery experienced a spiritual and material rebirth and today about 30 monks work and live here, comprising the largest monastery brotherhood within the Serbian Orthodox Church. In addition to a series of spiritual and missionary activities the new brotherhood had initiated several tasks with the aim of comprehensively restoring the existing monastery buildings.

The land tracts in immediate proximity to the monastery have always had great significance for it due to the possibility that state-owned property would one day be privatized or used for purposes which would endanger the survival of the monastery. In this case it would be much more difficult to reclaim the monastery property and to preserve appropriate conditions of monastery life.

For this reason the Monastery of Visoki Decani initiated a campaign to get back at least the closest former monastery land tracts which still had not been privatized from the Government of the Republic of Serbia.

Deed of the Serbian Government and Visoki Decani Monastery

After negotiation with representatives of the Government and determined efforts by the brotherhood to demonstrate the urgent need for the resolution of this problem on November 6, 1997 a Deed of Gift (no. 04 464-2914/97) was concluded between the Republic of Serbia as the donator and the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Visoki Decani as the recipient. The Deed of Gift was chosen as the adequate legal form due to the fact that a law regulating the restitution of land illegally confiscated from religious communities after World War II had not yet been enacted. This form is also used in other parts of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in order to return to religious communities' buildings and land especially significant for their survival.

The Deed of Gift was executed with complete agreement and understanding that the land being returned to the monastery was land which had once belonged to it and not land belonging to anyone else. Because the monastery land was illegally taken from the monastery by a repressive measure and used for many years, all buildings which had been built on the land, i.e., all real property, was returned to the monastery as compensation for use of the land. The Deed of Gift was executed by the Abbot of Visoki Decani Monastery, Father Teodosije Sibalic, on behalf of the recipient, and by the Director of the Serbian Housing and Property Directorate, Dr. Milan Jovanovic, on behalf of the donator.

The above cited Deed of Gift returned the following property to the monastery:

1. The land property of the "Visoki Decani" tourist facility (tracts registered under numbers 494, 495, 502, 503, 522, 523, 524, 528, 1104, 1105, 1106), total surface area of 11 hectares, 40 ares and 51 square meters, including the existing hotel buildings which were currently not in use;

2. The land property of the "Apiko" honey-packing facility (tracts registered under numbers 301, 302, 303, 304, 305, 306, 307, 308, 309, 310, 311, 312, total surface area of 12 hectares, 5 ares and 12 square meters, including the buildings on the site;

3. The "Mermer" house in Decani (tract number 943), total surface area of 0 hectares, 1 are and 92 square meters.

Deed is duly registered in land registry books and land registry office

On February 3, 1998 the Land Registry Office in Pec of the Serbian Surveyor's Office issued a decision (no. 02-952-01-1/98-2) confirming the changes in the land registry local office in Decani on the basis of the Deed of Gift between the Republic of Serbia and the Monastery of Visoki Decani. It confirmed the right of transfer of ownership of state-owned land from the previous owner, the Republic of Serbia, to the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Visoki Decani. The decision repeats the tract numbers listed in the Deed of Gift between the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the Monastery. The Land Registry Office in Pec found there to be no obstacles to the implementation of this deed. Nevertheless, in accordance with the law a period of 15 days was set for appeals to the Serbian Surveyor's Office; however, no appeal was filed during this period or afterwards.

The monastery has a valid Deed of Title issued by the Land Registry Office in Pec of the Serbian Surveyor's Office, Decani branch office, no. 952-901-1/97 in which all tracts privately owned by the monastery are listed by number and surface area.


A Decani monk inspecting the damage which Albanians made in the monastery pine forest above Decani monastery, summer 2000

New Albanian municipal authorities contest monastery property, Dr. Bernard Kouchner and TDTI defend monastery rights

After the war, however, Decani municipality, in which Kosovo Albanians have now assumed sovereign authority, immediately began to contest the right of the monastery to the restituted land.

During the year 2000 the monastery was the target of two mortar attacks immediately following clear and unambiguous statements that the monastery had no intention of renouncing its land. Finally, as a result of increasing pressure by the municipality which was demanding that the monastery renounce its land through the local UNMIK administrator, Dr. Bernard Kouchner, the UN special representative for Kosovo, got involved and on June 28, 2000 sent a letter to Alain Le Roy, the regional UNMIK administrator for the Pec region. In this letter he gave specific instructions with the aim of "providing for security, serenity and peaceful life in Decani Monastery". Dr. Kouchner authorized the monastery to make free use of its land as far as the cemetery, i.e., in accordance with the boundaries of its property and prohibited any form of economic activity at the "Apiko" site as well as in the hotel area near the monastery. Dr. Kouchner proposed that property which could be moved be relocated and used in another place, as the monastery had proposed to the municipality several times through the local UN administrator. Furthermore Dr. Kouchner specifically prohibited the destruction and cutting down of forests near the monastery because after the war, the Albanians had begun cutting down and stealing timber from the monastery forest without control.

What is most important is that Dr. Kouchner gave instructions that any disputes concerning the ownership of the land and of these socially owned enterprises (Apiko and Decani hotel) should be ultimately adjudicated by the appropriate authorities, namely, the Housing and Property Directorate set up by UNMIK Civil Administration. Later UNMIK regulation 2000/3 transferred jurisdiction in matters relating to former state-owned property and state-owned buildings to the Transitional Department for Trade and Industry (TDTI). Therefore, legal resolution of this issue certainly does not belong in a local municipal court.

After this decision by Dr. Kouchner the monastery was left alone for a brief while; however, notices soon began to arrive from the municipal court in Decani. On the basis of Dr. Kouchner's letter it is clear that this land issue cannot be resolved in municipal or district courts, and therefore the monastery did not appear before the court because court officials had obviously exceeded their legal authority. The monastery was, furthermore, advised to take this course by authorized representatives of TDTI who looked at the issue in greater detail at the beginning of 2002. In March 2002 the monastery was visited by Mr. Fernand Saksik from the regional TDTI office in Pec and Mr. Tschoepke, the head of TDTI from Pristina who clearly explained that local and regional courts are not competent in this issue.

On March 6, 2002 Mr. Saksik wrote a letter and forwarded it to all relevant UNMIK representatives and municipal authorities in Decani, reiterating that the municipality and especially the municipal court cannot get involved in matters related to companies with buildings on present-day monastery land.

The Meeting
UNMIK officials and COMKFOR gen. Ortuno listen to complaints of Decani Monastery
regarding the pressures of Albanian authorities to get hold of monastery land, June, 24, 2000
MORE

Decani municipal court nevertheless illegally "resolves" Visoki Decani land issue

However, the municipal court in Decani apparently disagreed with this view and soon the entire case was forwarded to the district court in Pec which once again, for unknown reasons, returned the same case to the local municipal court in Decani.

On August 7 Decani Monastery learned from the press ("Koha Ditore") that on June 28, 2002 (more than a month before) the municipal court in Decani had issued two decisions voiding the Deed of Gift between the Serbian Government and the monastery from 1997 and affirming the alleged right of the "Apiko" honey-packing facility to the land of which it was the registered owner in 1996, as well as of a tourist company now called by a new Albanian name of "Ilirija". According to this decision Decani Monastery was obligated to release the property of "Apiko" and the "Ilirija" tourist company within a period of 15 days, i.e. before the monastery and local UNMIK authorities were even informed about the court decision.

It is important to note that the monastery did not receive the decision from the court which, by the way, has never been translated into the Serbian language so at this time the monastery has only a translation into English prepared for UNMIK. Furthermore news of the court decision was released with a delay of more than a month in order to forestall a timely appeal; "Koha Ditore" published news of the decision on August 7, even though the decision was apparently made on St. Vitus' Day, June 28, 2002, (exactly 56 years after the monastery land was confiscated by the communist authorities).

The decision cites certain facts regarding land ownership from 1932 which are not known to the monastery and which are seriously suspected of being falsified with the aim of justifying the court's decision. In Decani municipality there are no Serbs working and there is no control over the land registers.

Decani Monastery
Location 1 - Area where the mortars fell in the recent attack, June 2000
Location 2 - Area where the Albanians devastated the monastery pine wood

Municipal court oversteps its authority and declares Dr. Bernard Kouchner's decision invalid

The decision relating to the "Apiko" site contains a sentence which states that the municipal court in Decani has confirmed that it is the only court which has jurisdiction in this matter and unilaterally declares that the letter of Mr. Kouchner is of a temporary nature. This decision is in open contradiction with existing UNMIK regulations and represents an open example of exceeding its authority on the part of the court in Decani which has usurped the right of adjudicating the decisions of the SRSG (Special Representative of the UN Secretary General) .

At the time the Deed of Gift was concluded neither the "Apiko" Beekeepers' Cooperative nor the Visoki Decani Motel were in operation nor were any employees affected by the decision since both companies were effectively in bankruptcy, without any organization or administration. When the Deed of Gift was recorded in the land registry books, the Albanians no doubt had information regarding this decision since a significant number of Albanians were employed by the Land Registry Office at that time. No appeal was filed against the deed nor was this issue even raised.

False and twisted claims in "decision" of Decani municipal court

The specific reason why local Albanians are contesting the agreement between the Government of the Republic of Yugoslavia and the monastery is the fact that it was concluded during the time of "the repression". At the same time, however, a great number of other contracts and decisions made at the same time which are to the Albanians' benefit are not questioned and are considered to be perfectly valid. It is obvious that different criteria are being applied in a completely arbitrary manner.

Although UNMIK's regulation 1999/24 proclaims as the Applicable Law the law which was in power until 22.03.1989. it does not mean that the repressive decisions made by the former Communist authorities in 1946 can be considered as a valid basis for today's legislation. Quite on the contrary, one of the most important rules of the Roman Law says that: Ex iniuria ius non oritur (The right and law cannot be defined on injustice).

In the decision relating to the matter of the Visoki Decani Hotel, mention is made of a certain contract which the "Sloga" Hotel Tourist Company from Pristina concluded with the monastery in 1993 and which the Government of the Republic of Serbia allegedly confirmed by the Deed of Gift. This contract between "Sloga" and the monastery was legally unbinding and was not registered in the appropriate land registry books. The monastery quickly understood that "Sloga" was not authorized to perform a transfer of ownership in this manner and that is why the monastery approached the Government of the Republic of Serbia to reclaim the property in accordance with legal norms and to legally record this in the land registry books.

CONCLUSION:

Visoki Decani monastery considers the decision of the Municipal court in Decani, which consists only of Albanians, as an example of institutional repression against the last remaining Serb community in Decani Municipality and a provocation in front of international authorities in Kosovo and Metohija. Supporting the right of local Kosovo courts to adjudicate land issues concerning the property of religious communities and former socially owned property would make a dangerous precedent which would inevitably result in legal disorder and usurpation of large tracts of Serb owned land.

This decision is therefore in direct function of further destabilization of the security situation and is seriously challenging confidence building between Kosovo's communities.

Decani Monastery
The view from the road

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