Since the arrival of NATO forces in Kosovo in mid-June 1999, some 108 Serbian Orthodox churches in the province have been destroyed or vandalised; the work, according to the Serbian Orthodox Church, of Albanian extremists. At present, these churches are under the protection of KFOR, the international Kosovo Force, but there are worrying signs that Kosovo’s Serbian religious and cultural heritage is low on the international list of priorities.
Keston News Service – February 2002 – In the latest edition of Crucified Kosovo, a book published by the Raska and Prizren diocese documenting these developments, it is alleged that the destruction of Orthodox sites is carried out in eight distinct phases. These are: 1) shattering due to NATO action between 23 March and 11 June 1999; 2) looting after 13 June 1999; 3) desecration; 4) burning; 5) initial blasting with explosives; 6) blasting of surviving parts; 7) removal of building materials; and 8) clearance of terrain.
Church representatives believe that the attacks are part of a systematic campaign to eradicate Serb Orthodox presence in the province, rather than simply acts of blind revenge. In the Kosovar Albanians’ struggle for a separate state, according to Fr Sava Janjic of the Decani Monastery, “the Serbian Orthodox Church is the last anchor of Serbian presence here, so we are strategically dangerous to them.” In one of only two mixed Serb/Albanian villages, Osojane (in Albanian Osojan), for example, the Church of St Nicholas, built in 1986, was “dynamited in a professional way” some time after the arrival of NATO forces, according to Sister Mikhaela of Pec Patriarchate Convent. Since the most important structural parts of the building had been targeted, she explained, it is now unsafe and parishioners are forbidden to enter the building: “It will have to be torn down.”
Damage to civilian properties
Keston has not been able to obtain any independent confirmation of the progressive and systematic destruction of Orthodox churches in particular, but on 24 October 2001 the programme coordinator of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Mary Mayall, outlined a similar process occurring to abandoned Serbian civilian properties, In preparation for the return of the Serb population to the second of the two mixed Serb/ Albanian villages, Ljestar (Leshtar), the Committee chose houses which had sustained only minor damage for rebuilding. However , when they returned to the village a few weeks later whole walls were missing from these houses. Local Albanians, Mary Mayall said, put this new damage down to “deterioration“.
The misuse or destruction of religious sites is nothing new in the territory of former Yugoslavia. Similar reports have come from Bosnia and Macedonia, Orthodox and Islamic sites have been targeted by extremists on both sides. Nevertheless, in Kosovo, the majority of pre-sixteenth-century monuments are Orthodox, and it is these priceless religious and cultural sites which are under threat.
Priceless heritage under threat
The Serbian Orthodox Church reports that 33 pre-sixteenth-century churches were seriously damaged or destroyed by Albanian extremists after the arrival of NATO troops in June 1999. Some 70 remain intact. According to Mirjana Menkovic of the Mnemosyne Centre for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Kosovo and Metohia, the five most important such sites are the thirteenth-century Pec Patriarchate, the fourteenth-century Decani Monastery, Gracanica Monastery, the Church of the Mother of God in Ljeviska, Prizren, and the village of Velika Hoca, where four of the 13 churches date from the fourteenth century. She believes they are undoubtedly on a par with Studenica Monastery in Serbia, which was included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1988. None of those cited by Menkovic, however, is currently on UNESCO’s list, and a May 2001 report aiming “to define schedules for UNESCO interventions, for protection and restoration of the cultural heritage” of the province includes Orthodox sites in just two of its ten proposed restoration/ rehabilitation projects. Menkovic described this report to Keston as “shameless“.
In the report, its author, architectural adviser Carlo Blasi, informed the UNESCO representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colin Kaiser, that he had visited ‘all main sites and monuments’ in Kosovo (some 40 are on his list), among them just six Orthodox sites – the five cited by Menkovic and the “nice” eighteenth-century Church of St George in Prizren. The two restoration/rehabilitation projects involving Orthodox sites proposed the allocation of 500,000 deutschmarks (225,000 us dollars or 160,000 UK pounds) to Decani Monastery and a total of 150,000 deutschmarks (68,000 US dollars or 48,000 UK pounds) to four unspecified churches in the village of Velika Hoca. By contrast, four of the nine mosques visited by Blasi (ranging from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries) are proposed allocation of individual restoration projects. Gracanica, Pec Patriarchate and the Church of the Mother of God in Ljeviska are absent from the project list, as are dozens of other early medieval Orthodox sites.
Although supposedly a scientific document, Blasi’s report appears inconsistent. It argues that ‘places and monuments to which UNESCO intervention now seems inappropriate were not included, such as buildings completely destroyed and ones already under restoration’. However, Blasi proposes the allocation of 500 000 deutschmarks for the restoration of Decani’s mosque, which a 2000 publication produced by Kosovo’s Islamic community, Serbian Barbarities Against Islamic Monuments in Kosova, claims “was burnt completely in 1998“. Accompanying photographs confirm that burnt and ruined walls are all that is left of the main building.
While the report argues that restoration of the Decani mosque is important “because of the monument’s historical importance and religious reasons“, no explanation is given for the non-inclusion of other sites of historical and religious importance, many of which are more ancient and/ or in a condition not excluded by the report as ineligible for funding. Andreas Szolgyemi, adviser to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on religious issues in Kosovo, said that he had contacted UNESCO about protection of religious sites in the spring of 2000, but “they were very, very uninterested“.
On the other hand, on 22 November Horst Goedicke, the chairman of UNESCO’s Intersectoral Working Group on south-east Europe, described the protection and restoration of the Orthodox churches in Kosovo as a “burning issue“. A UNESCO fact-finding mission would visit Kosovo within the next three months. Regarding the possibility of protection of such sites, Goedicke explained that UNESCO itself does not propose their inclusion on the organisation’s World Heritage List: “The initiative to put sites on the World Heritage List must emanate from the national government on whose territory the site is located.” It was the responsibility of the Yugoslav government, he said, but UNESCO had to date not received any such request from them.
Orthodox sites under guard
In the meantime, the Orthodox sites are still protected by KFOR. According to Bob Charmbury, United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) deputy head of Pec regional administration, all Orthodox churches “except lose already destroyed” were under individual KFOR guard, including those not in use if located in an Albanian area. If they were in a Serb enclave, he added, they would not be guarded separately. On 25 October a KFOR spokesman, British Ministry of Defence employee Tim Zillessen, told Keston that KFOR is currently providing protection for 140 religious sites 24 hours a day.
In the village of Gracanica (Ulpiana) – which is a Serb enclave – Keston indeed observed only a single Swedish KFOR officer outside the gates of Gracanica Monastery, while the roads into the village are controlled by substantial military checkpoints, Both Pec Patriarchate Convent and Decani Monastery have individual checkpoints at the beginning of the track leading to their entrances, which, in Decani’s case, is guarded by some ten Italian tanks. The ruins of the Church of the Holy Trinity by the Pec-Pristina road, by contrast, are entirely deserted.
While Keston encountered high praise among church representatives for the Italian KFOR – who, according to Fr Sava, are providing “not just physical security bu t also assistance everywhere where it is missing” – Mirjana Menkovic of the Mnemosyne Centre pointed out that destruction was continuing because the international authorities administering Kosovo had given “no signal to the Albanian community that it is unacceptable.” As to arresting or prosecuting those responsible for the destruction, Bob Charmbury accepts that this is at best unlikely: “You wouldn’t find them – impossible“.
For the present, Serbian Orthodox religious sites and communities such as the Decani monastery are existing under siege. Fr Sava joked:
“Decani monastery is our island. The KFOR checkpoint at the gate is our port, from which we take our ferry – an armoured car – across a sea containing dangerous piranhas.”
Geraldine Fagan and Branko Bjelejac
Source: Keston Institute <http://www.keston.org>