Churches `symbols of occupation'

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The Independent Online
"I FEEL very sorry about that church, and we're all for preserving the old buildings," said Ethem Ceku, a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) officer from the town of Pec. "But we're very allergic to churches built since 1990. They are churches of politics, not churches of religion."

This was a fortnight ago, and Mr Ceku was talking about a burned-out Orthodox church in western Kosovo, not the Serb cathedral in the province's capital, Pristina, that was bombed early yesterday morning. But the sentiment is telling. All over Kosovo, Serbian churches are being burned down or vandalised - another sign of how Albanians have become utterly alienated from all things Serbian.

According to Father Sava Janjic, an aide to the Archbishop of Pec, at least 15 churches have been wholly or partially destroyed since the Nato bombing campaign ended in June. Set alongside the systematic razing of Albanian homes and mosques by Serbian forces during the war, such attacks may not come as any surprise - but Kosovo is supposed to be at peace now and in the process of reconstruction.

The situation is dramatically clear in the Patriarchate of Pec, a collection of medieval churches in a dramatic gorge close to Kosovo's western border. "This is the Serbian Canterbury," said Father Jovan Culibrk, who lives in the monastery. "For 750 years this has been the seat of the Serbian archbishop." But since Nato's liberation, the patriarchate has been under an invisible siege.

Some 1,200 Serbs took sanctuary here from Albanian retaliation, although now all but 40 have left for safer parts of the former Yugoslavia. The priests, monks, nuns and remaining Serbs live under unofficial house arrest, fearful to go into town without an escort provided by the Italian Nato soldiers posted at the gate.

Fr Culibrk has stories of Serbs butchered, raped and brutalised, allegedly by members of the KLA. "There is no proper civilian authority here, and only the church can bring Serbs back to their homes," he said. "Albanians want to destroy the church. They want an `ethnically cleansed' Kosovo."

But drive into the town itself and the situation becomes less black and white.

No large town in Kosovo suffered more during the war than Pec. Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble, blackened timbers and charred stones by fire and bombardment and, according to the local KLA interim administration, 92 per cent of private houses were destroyed.

In Pec, the Serb authorities were crueller, the KLA stronger and the fighting between them fiercer than elsewhere. Seven hundred Albanians, it is claimed, were killed in the city, and not far outside are massacre sites where 350 bodies have been found.

No one accuses the church authorities of participating in these attacks, and leaders such as Fr Janjic protest that the Serb Orthodox Synod Council has a long history of speaking out against the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic - although their criticisms were ignored by the state-controlled media.

But among Kosovo Albanians this view is received with cynicism. "Orthodoxy is part of Serb nationalist ideology," Mr Ceku said. "They are Slavic brothers fighting for a holy land."

And he has evidence - photographs, found in an abandoned Serb house, which at the very least throw an interesting light on the church's claims to oppose Serb extremism.

They are undated but what they show is clear: a number of burly looking men in front of a poster of Vojislav Seselj, the ultra-nationalist leader of the Serb Radical Party.

With the men are Orthodox priests, blessing them and administering the Eucharist. Among them is Archbishop Pavle, Patriarch of the Serb Orthodox Church.

More sophisticated Orthodox clerics acknowledge the church's terrible image problem. "The church in Serbia could have spoken out more loudly," Fr Janjic admitted.

"It should have been more consistent, and during the Bosnian war it's true that clergymen had more than filial relations with Bosnian leaders."

The tragedy for priests such as him is that the church's past mistakes may have rendered it incapable of now achieving any good.