April 27, 2013

Serbia, Kosovo and the Church: Physician, Heal Thyself

April 26, 2013

MY FELLOW Balkan-watcher Victoria Clark (who shares my interest in Slavic and ex-Ottoman lands, but is not otherwise related) had some remarkable experiences when she was researching her book "Why Angels Fall"—a scholarly ramble through the Christian East. Some of her happiest and unhappiest moments were spent among the Orthodox Serbs. In Bosnia, she had an abrasive encounter with a certain Bishop Vasilije Kacavenda, who reacted angrily when she raised the subject of ethnic cleansing. Britain, he retorted, was a bit too multi-cultural for its own good. In Kosovo, by contrast, she was warmly received at the medieval Serbian monastery of Decani (pictured), where she liked the monks' cooking (two kinds of ratatouille, and gooey chocolate cake) and their courageous belief in co-existence between Serbs and Albanians.

Fourteen years later, some things have changed a lot, others not all. Decani still houses an energetic community of monks, but they need all their courage. The 30 or so robed monastics are now the only Serbs left on the western fringe of Kosovo. Since the summer of 1999, when NATO forced Serbian troops out of Kosovo and installed a peacekeeping force, its beautiful stone walls have been assaulted half a dozen times, with mortars or Molotov cocktails. Scores of Serbian churches have been attacked elsewhere in Kosovo so there is good reason to worry about what would befall Decani if it were left unprotected. Although the monastery's ownership of a small farm was recently confirmed by a court, local Albanian hotheads don't hide their desire to take over the land, if not the entire premises. Peacekeepers from Italy have provided vital security. "Thank God for the Italians," says Father Nektarios Serfes, an American Orthodox priest who raises money for Decani.

Meanwhile, the Serbian Orthodox Church as a whole has shown a more emollient face to the world since the election in January 2010 of a new Patriarch, Irinej. To many outsiders, his elevation signalled that the church was breaking with the hard-line nationalists who were prominent during the post-Yugoslav wars. In a token of inter-church friendship, the Patriarch sent a message of congratulations to the newly elected Pope Francis, and he says he'd welcome a papal visit to Serbia. He has fallen out badly with the erstwhile spiritual leader of the Kosovo Serbs, Artemije, and stripped him of his episcopal rank, a decision which the feisty cleric won't recognise. Artemije's political views have fluctuated (from pro-Western to the opposite) but he has always been a hard-liner in relations with other Christian confessions.

Perhaps inevitably, the leadership of the Serbian church has denounced as treacherous the EU-brokered deal struck on April 19th under which Belgrade promised some degree of co-operation with Kosovo's Albanian rulers. Given the church's role as the guardian of Serbian nationalism, it could hardly have taken a different position. In other ways, though, the stock of the hard-liners who were prominent in the 1990s is falling. On April 22nd, the church accepted on "health"grounds the resignation of Bishop Vasilije, the sharp-tongued scourge of multiculturalism, after an embarrassing video circulated on social media.

But if church leaders are to speak up convincingly in defence of threatened places like Decani (a piece of Europe's heritage that should matter to people who are neither Christian nor Serbian) they may have to go further in cleansing their own stables and looking harder at the role which ultra-nationalist clerics played in the 1990s.

Whoever decides the political future of Kosovo, it probably won't be the church. But as they prepare to celebrate Orthodox Easter on May 5th, Serbia's clerics do have a right and duty to speak out in defence of historic monuments and communities that face imminent physical threats. And the higher their own moral standing, the more chance they have of winning a hearing.