East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer 2004, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

The Destruction of Serbian Orthodox Holy Places in Kosovo

Paul Mojzes

Mass communal violence in Kosovo in mid-March 2004 seems to have surprised many in the West, including United Nations (U.N.) civilian and military authorities1 in this south Serbian province now under their supervision and control. But it did not surprise this author, or many others, who have some sense of the long-range relationships between ethnic Albanians and Serbs living in Kosovo. For some of us this is a “we told you so” case. In October 2003 a Russian policeman who served several years in Kosovo informed me during an interview in Ekaterinburg, Russia, that National Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-led U.N. forces do not protect the province’s Serbs, who are rarely able to leave their homes. And this eye witness is Jewish rather than Orthodox. The ability of Kosovo’s Serbs to survive over the long term is questionable.

The Violence in Summary
In mid-March 2004, mob violence in Kosovo left 28 dead (of whom eight were Serbs), perhaps a thousand wounded, and the destruction of several Serbian villages, including the torching of over 400 homes, the destruction of 30 churches, and damage to a further 11 churches.2 The mayhem resembled old-style anti-Jewish pogroms involving pillage, destruction, and death. And this in a province “controlled” by some 18,000 U.N. Kosovo Force (KFOR) soldiers and several thousand United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) police. U.N. forces themselves came under attack, with several soldiers killed, some injured, and 72 U.N. vehicles destroyed. The U.N. did save some lives, but on the whole it could not stem the violence.

The drowning on 16 March 2004 of three Albanian children near Kosovska Mitrovica, a Serbian enclave in northern Kosovo, sparked mob action. Albanians assumed that Serbs were responsible because the sole surviving 13-year-old stated that Serbs had chased them and unleashed a dog against them. Albanian language press and media coverage inflamed emotions. Near Kosovoska Mitrovica stone throwing Albanian mobs attacked Serbs. The fighting quickly escalated to the use of firearms. Almost instantly the rest of Kosovo exploded as Albanians attacked everything Serbian that was in their way, especially monasteries, cloisters, and churches, many of which are centuries-old treasures of Orthodox spiritual creativity.3 Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije (Radosavljevic) of Raska-Prizren and Kosovo-Metohija described the attacks as another Kristalnacht, the infamous 1938 Nazi pogrom against Jews in Germany, while U.N. Governor of Kosovo Harri Holkeri called it “a crime against humanity.” For a senior NATO commander, March in Kosovo was “not far from ethnic cleansing.”4

According to Forum 18, 112 Orthodox churches and monasteries have been destroyed since 1999, obviously without adequate U.N. protection. Nor has anyone been apprehended for these crimes since the beginning of U.N. control. This time, however, events were more dramatic in that hundreds if not thousands of Albanians participated. At first it seemed that the action was spontaneous, but some U.N. authorities later claimed that these events were well organized. Some Albanian politicians and former Kosovo Liberation Army commanders were finally arrested and charged with orchestrating the destruction.5 In the end an international prosecutor cleared Serbs of any involvement in the drowning of the children.6

Ethnic Cleansing in Reverse
Readers should note first that the Albanian process of reverse ethnic cleansing against Serbs in Kosovo continues. It is taking place in the wake of U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia and occupation of Kosovo in 1999, purportedly to prevent ethnic cleansing of Albanians by Serbs.7 The irony is that the NATO attack against Serbia was allegedly to protect the multi-ethnic character of Kosovo, yet Kosovo, under U.N. “protection,” has become more ethnically Albanian than ever before. This is the continuation of a much longer process of ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Albanians that had already been taking place prior to Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power, which he attempted to curb by imposing a drastic repression of Albanians.

What happens in Kosovo has an almost immediate impact in the region, not only on Albanian-Serb relations, but on Muslim-Christian relations across the Balkans. Another war is not excluded. Some Serbs view the events in Kosovo as the criminal activity of organized Albanian bands who are intent on wiping out the remnants of Serbian life and culture in a region that Serbs see as the cradle of their nationhood. Indeed, as soon as violence broke out in Kosovo, it was answered by mob violence that broke out in other parts of Serbia, where the sole mosque in Belgrade was set on fire,8 as was one in Nis and Novi Pazar and an Islamic center in Novi Sad.

In other places, lacking Muslim targets, Protestant centers were attacked. In neighboring Macedonia Molotov cocktails were thrown at a mosque in Kumanovo, while, presumably in retalia•tion, two small Orthodox churches in that vicinity were attacked. In Bosnia Orthodox churches as well as mosques were reciprocally attacked, while in Montenegro mosques had to be protected.

Sacred objects, no matter how precious, historic, and important, are immediate targets of inter-ethnic violence. Some Albanians wrote, “Death to Serbs” and “Down with UNMIK” on church walls in Prizren, just as Serbs used to write on mosques, “This is Serbia,” or as Macedonians once erected a cross on a Muslim building in Bitola.

Albanian and Serbian Goals at Odds
Even though a small number of religious fanatics may be involved in these attacks, I remain convinced of the fundamental correctness of my conclusion from the early 1990s that the Balkans are engulfed in religious wars fought by irreligious people.9 The most immediate cause of these events is the radically different goals of Albanians and Serbs regarding Kosovo and the incredibly naïve expectation of Western politicians that where others failed over the span of centuries, they can in a short time create a multiethnic democratic community out of Kosovo.

But local aspirations are not multiethnic. Most Albanians want not only autonomy, but an independent state of Kosovo, ideally without any non-Albanians, and especially with no Serbs. Many aspire in the long run to unite with Albania and annex Albanian-populated areas in Macedonia, Southern Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece. They fancy that the U.S. is tacitly supportive of at least some aspects of a “greater Albania” project.

On the other hand, Serb appetites for a “greater Serbia” have been severely cramped and a much more realistic view prevails in Belgrade that an international supervision of the province is a current necessity. However, many still seethe with anger at U.S.-led bombing of Serbia in 1999 and all Serbs maintain that Kosovo is and should be Serbian. By now Belgrade would settle for a partition of Kosovo or for Serbs there to be granted broad autonomy in the context of renewed Serbian sovereignty. Neither Albanians nor Serbs believe that peaceful coexistence in Kosovo is possible, making the Western dream of a multiethnic democracy in Kosovo absolutely unrealistic.

Looking back in history, Albanians and Serbs never cooperated as equals, though at times they lived alongside each other with minimal interaction and minimal violence. The usual pattern was that Serbs oppressed Albanians or vice versa. And in recent years when either side has been ascendent, the desire for revenge for former real or alleged atrocities has led to bloodshed. Sometimes these atrocities have taken on genocidal dimensions. While the conflict between the two is predominantly ethnic and nationalistic, five centuries of Ottoman Turkish designation of communities by religion rather than nationality often means the conflict is couched in religious terms. Since Serbs are historically Orthodox Christians and Kosovo Albanians are mostly Muslim, the conflict takes on religious dimensions.

I have argued elsewhere that belated international intervention in the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia only intensified the Balkan tragedy. The allegedly “preventive” humanitarian NATO attack on Serbia in 1999 over the Kosovo issue has only made matters worse.10 Instead of contributing to the solution, the resulting U.N. administration of Kosovo has continued to be a tremendously destabilizing factor because none of the presently available solutions are acceptable to both Albanians and Serbs. Albanians are not willing to live any longer in any state structure in which they are together with Serbs, or even with Muslims belonging to other ethnic groups such as Roma, Turks, or Boshnianks. And Serbs realize that an Albanian-dominated state structure offers them no minority protection, not even elementary conditions for survival. In the meantime U.N. and European politicians still delude themselves with notions of multiethnic Kosovo democracy.

A Wake-Up Call
The March 2004 attempts at further ethnic cleansing of Serbs appear to have been a wake-up call to many European politicians, some of whom are now beginning to see the merits of a recent proposal by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica for autonomous Serbian zones within Kosovo or an outright partition.

European politicians have come to realize that despite the priorities of the war in Iraq, the Middle East in general, and European-U.S. tensions, Kosovo needs to become again the focus of attention because, after all, it is in the European backyard. And as long as the Balkan Peninsula is unstable, it affects the rest of the continent.11 As for the United States, as Lawrence Uzzell, president of International Religious Freedom Watch, has noted, “[a]part from verbal condemnations by the State Department and Congress, the U.S. has done little.”12

In the meantime pictures of the destroyed churches and monasteries in Prizren, Devic, Djakovica, Kosovo Polje, Obilic, Lipljan, Pristina, Caglavica, Podujevo, Gnjilane, Belo Polje, Pec, Kosovska Mitrovica, and Svinjare are a testimony to the barbaric nature of conflict between Albanians and their Slavic neighbors.13 At the same time, it is doubtful that Albanian attacks on Orthodox Serbian sacred places are primarily religious in motivation. Probably only small groups are inspired by Wahabism from Saudi Arabia. It seems that the primary motive is the primal instinct of ethnic cleansing—Albanians desire to expel all non-Albanians and to appropriate real estate, legally or illegally. To that end most Albanians want to remove everything that is Serbian from their midst. Churches, monasteries, and graveyards are symbols of a people’s presence and identity, and even hooligans instinctively know that by attacking these symbols one sends the unmistakable signal that the enemy is to vanish.

In conclusion, while ethnic cleansing seems to be primarily a secular process, it does carry embedded religious overtones. Deep in the Balkan subconscious is the ethnoreligious identity marking people with the stamp, “Orthodox,” “Catholic,” “Christian,” or “Muslim.” All of these labels figure in the fabric of many centuries of enduring conflict. The antidote would be tolerance, human rights, and interreligious dialogue. But all three are in woefully short supply in the Balkans.

Paul Mojzes is professor of religious studies, Rosemont College, Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and coeditor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies and Religion in Eastern Europe.
1. According to Lt. Col. Jerzy Szesytynski of the Polish Special Police Unit, “It was a big surprise to all of us.” Nicholas Wood, “Kosovo Smolders After Mob Violence,” New York Times, 24 March 2004.
2. “6 Dead, Hundreds Wounded in Serbia Clash,” New York Times, 17 March 2004 (http://www.nytimes.com/aponlin…/AP-Kosovo-Clashes.html?hp=&pagewanted=print&position). For a more complete report see Nicholas Wood, “Kosovo Smolders After Mob Violence,” New York Times, 24 March 2004 (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/24/intern…/24KOSO.html?hp=&pagewanted=print&position).
3. Branko Bjelajac,”Kosovo & Serbia: Destruction Worse Than Initially Believed, and Violence Sparks Incidents in Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia,” Forum 18, 24 March 2004 (http://www.forum18.org).
4. “Ibid”. B-92 News Service Headlines (Belgrade), 19 March 2004 (http://www.b92.net/english/news/index.php?nav_id=25794&dd=02&mm=12&yyyy=2003). For a specific case in Uroševac, see Branko Bjelajac, “Kosovo: Hand Grenade Attack on an Orthodox Church,” Forum 18, 19 December 2003 (www.forum18.org).
5. B-92 News Service Headlines (Belgrade), 19 March 2004 (http://www.b92.net/english/news/index.php?nav_id=25794&dd=02&mm=12&yyyy=2003).
6. Associated Press, “Probe: Serbs Not Tied to Drownings,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 April 2004.
7. There had been plenty of early warnings. One was issued by Bishop Artemije during his presentation, “Multiethnic Kosovo: Diplomatic Dream or Balkan Reality,” presented at the Western Policy Center, Washington, DC, 29 January 2004 (Full text in author's possession).
8. The Serbian government allocated funds sufficient to repair the Belgrade Bajrakli mosque, taking responsibility for repairing the damage.
9. Paul Mojzes, Yugoslavian Inferno: Ethnoreligious Warfare in the Balkans (New York: Continuum, 1995), 125.
10. Paul Mojzes, “Religion and Armed Humanitarian Intervention in the Former Yugoslavia” in Religion, Law, and the Role of Force: A Study of Their Influence on Conflict and on Conflict Resolution, ed. by J.I. Coffey and Charles T. Matthews (Ardsley, NY: Transnational Publications, 2002), 129-44.
11. See B-92 Headline News.
12. Lawrence A. Uzzell, “Kosovo’s Religious Tables Turned,” http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0520/p09s02-coop.html.
13. See Web site http://serbianna.com and specifically http://www.kosovo.net/?1-node/view/6.

Paul Mojzes, "The Destruction of Serbian Orthodox Holy Places in Kosovo," East-West Church & Ministry Report 12 (Summer 2004), 1.

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