Liberation of Kosovo: Priests desert the nationalist cause

Serbian Orthodox Church
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The Independent Online
"THOSE PEOPLE who represent the war against Nato as another battle of Kosovo Polje are insulting our heritage as well as the Serbian Orthodox Church," said Father Sava Janjic. "In 1389 Prince Lazar carried the holy cross into battle; today, instead of the cross we have instruments of torture, and instead of the noble prince we have indicted war criminals."

Father Sava was speaking within the leafy precincts of the 14th-century monastery of Gracanica, a short distance south of Pristina, the provincial capital. It is one of the reasons why Kosovo is considered the seat of Serbian Orthodoxy: Gracanica and other monasteries are the oldest foundations in the faith. Today the head of Serbian Orthodoxy, Patriarch Pavle Ras- Prizren, will officiate at a solemn liturgy in the monastery to commemorate the 610th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje (the Field of Blackbirds), which is seen by Serbs as the key to their national identity. For many others, however, the battle is significant because of its exploitation by Slobodan Milosevic, through which he enlisted the support of many in the Church.

The Serbian Orthodox hierarchy did much to foster the tide of Serbian nationalism which Mr Milosevic later rode. In 1987 bishops decided to take the relics of Prince Lazar in procession from monastery to monastery, an event which attracted huge crowds and helped to re-establish the Church at the centre of the Serbs' sense of nationhood. In April the same year Mr Milosevic, then an obscure Communist Party official, gave the speech which was to make his career. At Kosovo Polje, the mainly Serb satellite town of Pristina named after the battle, he put himself at the head of Serbian nationalists who had been fighting the police, telling them: "Nobody should dare to beat you!"

Two years later, having risen to the verge of the Yugoslav presidency, Mr Milosevic came to Kosovo to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the battle. On 28 April 1989, amid scenes of adulation not seen since the death of Tito in 1980, he spoke to a crowd of a million people. Behind him on the podium was a row of Orthodox bishops. Reminded of this a decade later, Father Sava said: "The Orthodox Church does not have a unified political standpoint. There are a lot of deluded people in our number - probably many of them still support Milosevic."

But the Kosovo in which the 610th anniversary will be marked is very different from a year ago, let alone a decade ago. Yugoslav security forces have gone, and the Nato troops who replaced them are struggling to protect an ever-dwindling Serb minority from the revenge of the Albanian population. Yesterday the people of Belo Polje, a Serbian village near Pec, fled to the city's monastery after Albanians, said to be in Kosovo Liberation Army uniforms, burned and looted their homes. They also allegedly raped and murdered a mentally ill Serbian woman.

Yesterday too, Miodrag Zivic, a school porter at Laplje Selo village, only a mile or two from Gracanica, was buried after being beaten and shot four times by Albanians. British K-For troops took him to hospital, but he never regained consciousness.

Momcilo Trajkovic, the leader in Kosovo of the Serbian Resistance Movement, an anti-Milosevic party, was Zivic's cousin. In the heat outside the house where women were wailing over the body, he said: "This funeral is the result of Milosevic's policies, Albanian terrorism and the failings of the international community, but above all Milosevic." Events such as his cousin's death would weigh heavily at today's commemoration, but he added: "That ceremony, like this one, is a religious event, not a political one.

"Before the present situation the Church did allow itself to be used, but Patriarch Pavle and Bishop Artemije [head of the Church in Kosovo] tried to prevent it. Artemije spoke for the people of Kosovo. He was never a supporter of Milosevic."

At the monastery, Father Sava too was seeking to distance the Church from any of the anniversary's political connotations. "Each year we would commemorate the battle in a religious way, and other people would stage a march. The two were in parallel." But Patriarch Pavle also plans to speak at the monument to the battle at Gazimestan, just north of Kosovo Polje town, creating a potential security nightmare for K-For.

Father Sava's own credentials are not in doubt: during the war he sheltered dozens of Albanians from Serbian death squads at Decani monastery, south of Pec. But others point out that Patriarch Pavle did not come out against Mr Milosevic until after the war was over, and that it took another Serbian defeat - the Croatian seizure of Krajina in 1995, which sent 250,000 refugees into Serbia - to convince Bishop Artemije of the dangers of Serbian expansionism.

The bishop has spoken out courageously in the past year, calling for a ceasefire last summer when Serbian forces launched an offensive against the KLA. Two days after the Nato bombing campaign began, he condemned killing and looting in Kosovo, but his statement was ignored by Belgrade's media. No other condemnation of ethnic cleansing was heard from the Church; Patriarch Pavle said in Belgrade that Nato was "doomed to failure". Only after Nato forces had begun entering Kosovo did the Serbian Orthodox synod call for Mr Milosevic's resignation.

Last week, as Bishop Artemije and other Church leaders emerged from a meeting in Pristina with UN representatives, they were booed and hissed. The bishop fled to Gracanica from his seat in Prizren, in south-western Kosovo, after one priest was kidnapped, others threatened and Church buildings damaged.

The irony is that the 14th-century battle of Kosovo Polje was a defeat for Serbian expansionism: Prince Lazar fell fighting the forces of Islam, and Serbia did not regain control of Kosovo until early this century. If there is any modern parallel, it is probably here. The dream of a Greater Serbia, cheered on by most of the Orthodox clergy, has brought only disaster and defeat. As a result, the most holy places of the faith may once again be islands in an Islamic sea, for a long time to come.