April 20, 2012

Interview With President of the Decani Monastery Relief Fund

Interview with Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes: “I have come to Kosovo to convey to the Serbians that we are thinking about them”.

Interview led by Slavica Lazic

President of the Decani Monastery Relief Fund from the USA, The Very Reverend Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes, visited Kosovo and Metohija this year, and delivered humanitarian aid to the most struggling families. Serbians in the region largely depend on help from the Church, charities, and people of good will.

The following interview took place in Belgrade, Serbia on 2 February 2012, wih Slavica Lazic who is one of the writers of Pravolsavlje.

This is your sixth visit to Kosovo and Metohija. What is your impression after this last visit of the endangered Serbian enclaves?

I came intentionally at this time of year. I wanted to see how average people live everyday life under these conditions of a cold and extremely harsh winter. I plan to share my experience and photos with the donors of my Fund and to testify to our brothers and sisters in Kosovo that Orthodox in America and across the globe have not forgotten about them. I came over here to communicate my love and to assure them that we are committed to help them by any means we can, and that we will persevere in our work.

What would be the most essential/urgent help for the Serbian people at this very moment?

I traveled all over Kosovo. During this visit I have spoken to many people, with the seminarians in Prizren, with monks and nuns in Decani and Gracanica, etc., so that I can find out how we can help them in the future. At the seminary, which had no heating, and was under construction for a while after it was destroyed, the situation is slightly better; however, there are still many things that need to be done. Schools need more support, from heating to equipment and teaching aids. There are currently six soup kitchens, which experience shortages of food. Due to bad weather many roads are impassable and that makes the situation for soup kitchens even more unbearable. I want to convey to the people in my country, through these photographs, about the seriousness of the situation.

In addition to the seminary and monasteries, I have visited many homes. I have noticed that many of them are without running water, without proper and sufficient heating systems and are only furnished with basic furniture. However, they were glad to see a priest, or to have a monk visit their home or their village. They are happy and grateful, although they need human care and humanitarian aid. We cannot forget Kosovo, for there are still a lot of people who are suffering. We must take care of them. There was a war here and Serbians were fighting for their lives. We know that many of them saved their lives by fleeing to refugee camps. Some of them are now returning to their centuries old homes and it will take them decades to have decent and normal lives again. Serbian families are still not capable of living normal lives. We cannot afford to stop supporting them, for they are returning to their homes with a commitment to reestablish their lives, to rebuild their churches and to reconstruct their monasteries, and this project will take a long time. Returning Serbian people don’t have enough Churches in which to pray. If there were more Churches where people could pray, I’m sure Serbians would return in a greater number. Serbian people love their Orthodox Church and faith. If they see Churches rebuilt, and Divine Liturgy served in them – they will come back. As long as there is a Serbian Orthodox Church and monks in Kosovo, Serbians will survive. Serbians do not complain to anyone, they are not bitter or angry. As Christians we cannot close our eyes to their struggles and hard life.

The Decani Monastery Relief Fund is a non-profit organization. How much money have you distributed over all of these years?

We have donors from all over the world. Financial assistance comes from America, Canada, Europe and Australia. We have collected almost a quarter of a million dollars over these fourteen years. Since everything was demolished, robbed, and destroyed, we are grateful to our contributors, and they are aware that we use their money for education, medical needs, households, and construction material for rebuilding houses and Churches. With great joy, we announce that thirteen Churches have been rebuilt. I haven’t been back in a while because it has taken this long to raise enough money to bring as a donation. The current economic crisis is affecting the whole world, and naturally Americans are struggling as well, however I will not give up seeking more donations. When I go back I will continue advocating that Kosovo needs more humanitarian help and that it needs to rebuild more Orthodox Churches and monasteries. I wish those who were responsible for their desecration and demolition would reconstruct them. However, since this is unlikely to happen, we, Orthodox Christians, have to rebuild them and reestablish their glory. Our Churches are our glory. WE cannot forget the seminary in Prizren, which was burned down by Albanians in 2004’s pogrom, which is now being rebuilt. There is a first generation of seminarians attending the reopened seminary there; however, there are still other dormitories that need to be rebuilt in order for the seminary to be fully functional.

Serbians in Kosovo and Metohija are in danger; they live in a constant fear. Are you afraid to visit the most remote Serbian enclaves without protection of peace keeping troops?

People were asking me in the States: “Why are you going to Kosovo? That’s dangerous!” When I first visited this region a while ago, my mother was on her deathbed with cancer. I was afraid that I would not find her alive when I came back to the States; however, she encouraged me in my intention, saying that I was doing God’s work and that I should not be afraid. Ever since, I’ve seen horrible things, and I simply cannot believe that Albanians are taking reposed people out of their graves, that they are desecrating Serbian cemeteries, and doing other horrible things – they don’t even leave dead people to rest in peace. They persecute the living and the dead. They are killing priests and monks. Father Hariton who was doing humanitarian work, bringing food, helping struggling people and taking them to the hospital, was kidnapped and beheaded in 1999. I was in the States when that happened and I promised I would visit his grave. He was buried without his head. I couldn’t believe that happened.

The West cannot understand our love towards the Orthodox Church; that love and the Jesus prayer from the monks and nuns in Kosovo are what keep the Serbian people existing in that area. I’m bringing many prayer ropes back to the States. People are asking for them. They are even putting them on the babies’ hands to wear. I believe in prayer and love.

I’m always accompanied with Bishop Theodosije and monks from Decani, therefore I feel safe. God protects us.

Kosovo is the most struggling area in the world today along with Constantinople and Skopje. Average people in the West must see these struggles, and we as Orthodox Christians have to help each other. We are obliged as Christians to take care of our weak and struggling brothers and sisters through our prayers, love, and humanitarian work. In my parish in the States my parishioners pray for me before I leave and worry if I will return safely. And here I am, I haven’t been killed yet. With prayers and love we can accomplish a lot. While here, I’ve been serving a Divine Liturgy every day in the monastery of Decani.

I know a lot of children whom I visit every time I come. I bring them some gifts and some pocket change to buy some food or whatever they need. One boy lost a lot of weight since my last visit. That shocked me. I cried when I saw that because I haven’t been able to help more. Now when I go back to the States it’ll be difficult for me to start my life again. I have a heating system, I can turn on the lights with a switch, I can freely go to the store, I can drive my car in peace and without fear, but knowing how Serbian people live in Kosovo is killing me. People travel with fear and insecurity.

I met with Patriarch Irinej after the Liturgy in St. Mark’s Church. That was a fascinating moment to see a Patriarch serving the Liturgy in a freezing Church. What a great example of sacrifice and self-giving. He is an example of a true Christian, for there are not a lot of people who are ready to sacrifice for other people. Every time that I come here, I say to myself that I am a spoiled American.

You are also president of the Archbishop Jovan Fund. You went to Skopje with the intention to visit him in the jail. They have rejected your appeal to see him. What were their reasons behind that?

The Archbishop is my close friend, and we’ve known each other for six years. I spoke with him just before he was arrested. He told me that in December he was planning on returning to his diocese. “I have to go back to my people. I’m responsible for them like any other bishop. I am aware of what my happen to me when I go back, however I know that you will be praying for me,” he said. This is an example of a true love for Christ’s Church. A father has to take care of his children, especially with the responsibility as a bishop. He knows that his clergy and people are suffering and he doesn’t want to remain silent in Thessalonica. So far he has been arrested six times. Why? He is and Archbishop of the universally recognized Church. When the unrecognized Macedonian Orthodox Church separated from one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church he decided to remain faithful to his archdiocese and to his Patriarch. There were other bishops who followed his example. However, the government of the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia was looking for false accusations. The easiest way to defame someone is to accuse him of the embezzlement of money or to find something in his private life. He was accused with the former method. When he made an attempt to speak on behalf of his Church he asked – Why are you persecuting me? – He was accused that he has been speaking against his government. He replied: “My Church has to be free! And stop, don’t persecute us anymore!” To imprison an Archbishop is a scandal. He has a great love for God. I went to Skopje, but I wasn’t allowed to visit him at the prison. No one besides his mother and sister, who come to visit him once a month, are allowed to visit him – not bishops, not friends, not Patriarch. Prisons in Eastern Europe are much different than those in the States. The Archbishop’s life is in danger – he suffers from diabetes, he is in a cold cell without proper medication or diet. What’s the point of his imprisonment? His cassock and his insignias are taken away from him and he is thrown in a prison as if a robber. That’s a huge disgrace! The cassock is considered something holy for us. They want to strip him of his dignities and do away with him. Five times he was pronounced not guilty. If anything happens to him while he is imprisoned, we will tell the free world that the Macedonian government killed him. They are becoming extremely bad. Archbishop Jovan needs to be free now!

In Skopje I met with a representative from the US embassy, who showed a great understanding for our concerns. I have spoken with his Holiness Patriarch Irinej and I told him that we cannot remain silent about this. The more we keep silent, the more he suffers. We have to tell the world and the media that our Archbishop Jovan is in prison. He is dying on a daily basis. He is known in America as the confessor of Orthodoxy.

Our fund is financially supporting the clergy and faithful of the Archdiocese of Ohrid in Macedonia. They are persecuted, too. The whole Church is persecuted. They have to hide to pray, for the government destroyed all of their Churches. Nuns were praying once and the state police took them out of the Church, dragging them by their hair. That’s unthinkable in the West. They don’t have enough food, wood, warm water, and they have to hide when they pray.

I’ll never give up. I’ll try not to neglect my duties in my parish, but I’ll keep helping people in Kosovo as well. I pray to saints, especially to St. Steven of Decani to protect and guide his people in Kosovo and Metohija.

Serbia is being blackmailed to give up on Kosovo and Metohija in order to gain membership in the EU. What do you think about that?

I’m not a politician. I’m a parochial priest. Kosovo belongs to Serbia. Everything else is betrayal. The responsibility of the Serbians is to pray for their land and to protect it.

If anyone might be interested in sending donations to our fund please use the following address:

Decani Monastery Relief Fund
Very Rev. Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes
2618 West Bannock Street
Boise, Idaho 83702