Since the Middle Ages, the Balkan region of Kosovo-Metohia has witnessed firsthand the confrontation between Christianity and Islam. Metohia is a Greek word meaning “the Church’s land,” and Orthodox Christians consider Kosovo an outpost of their civilization. Muslims, on the other hand, continue to regard the region as a precious remnant of Islamic penetration into Europe. Although Christians and Muslims clashed many times in the course of the Turkish conquest of Christian Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece, two events stand out in popular memory: the Battle of Kosovo (1389) between Serbs and Turks and the fall of Constantinople (1453).
When I visited the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew, in Istanbul, he asked me about the life of Christians in Kosovo and about the condition of their churches. We Serbs still call Constantinople Carigrad (“the emperor’s city”), and I found it difficult to speak of the persecution of Christians in a city whose Christian heritage has suffered so much over the centuries. In Constantinople and Kosovo-Metohia, two sacred Christian places that were once the foundations of Greek and Serbian nationhood, there are now very few Christians. In Kosovo, even old houses and medieval churches, which once bore witness to Christian civilization, have been devastated—many of them just in the past few years.
In June 1999, international peacekeeping forces entered Kosovo-Metohia after 79 days of NATO bombing. Since that time, several hundred Christian Serbs have been murdered or kidnapped, and more than 180,000 have been driven into exile. The Serbs who remain have had to flee for their lives, abandoning their farms and villages to seek refuge in four major enclaves and several small villages. They do not expect to be able to return to their villages, which have, for the most part, been demolished and burned. In the cities, Albanians have moved into Serbian homes and apartments. Only in the northern enclave, which has access to the rest of Serbia, do Serbs have freedom of movement. Serbs who need to travel from enclave to enclave must be accompanied by peacekeeping forces; the alternative is to risk death. Serb delegates to the Kosovo Assembly travel to Pristina, the capital, in armored cars.
Albanian Muslims, backed by the international community, are now free to eradicate all signs that Christians ever lived in Kosovo. Of course, the desecration and destruction of Kosovo’s Christian monuments is hardly a new story: It has been going on since the Turks first occupied the region. In 1455, the Turks destroyed the Monastery of the Holy Arch-angels in Prizren. This monastery and church, founded by Emperor Dusan, was one of the greatest medieval Orthodox monuments. A century and a half later, Muslims used the stones from the ruins to build a mosque in Prizren.
The destruction of the Holy Archangels Church is only one of thousands of stories that can be told of the Turkish occupation of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. In recent years, Albanian activists had been desecrating and pillaging Christian monuments in Kosovo. What has changed since 1999 is the resolve of the Albanians to eliminate all signs of Christianity: In less than three years, they have desecrated or ruined some 110 Orthodox churches and destroyed nearly 80 percent of Serbian cemeteries.
What has happened to Zociste Monastery is typical. Zociste was a medieval monastery dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian (who are also commemorated in an ancient church near the Roman Forum). In the old days, Albanian Muslims visited Zociste to pay their respects and kiss the relics in the hope of securing recovery for their sick friends and relatives. In 1998, however, the Kosovo Liberation Army took over the monastery and held all the monks captive. The monks were set free only when the Red Cross made a formal appeal. After the NATO bombing and the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army and the Serbian police, Albanian activists destroyed the monastery.
In July 2002, I (along with Hieromonk Jovan Culibrk) had several conversations with three high officers of the Kosovo Force (KFOR). At those meetings, which were held in the ancient center of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Patriarchate of Pec, Brig. Gen. Pierluigi Torelli, commanding officer of the KFOR International Brigade West, and his executive officer, Col. Raffaele Iubini, expressed their deepest regret both for the expulsion of the Serbian people from Kosovo and for the destruction of their monuments. Spanish Lt. Col. Ruiz de Pascual expressed the same sentiments, adding that, for soldiers in Kosovo, the Patriarchate of Pec had the same importance as the Vatican.
Despite the moral support of KFOR officers, Albanians every day throw stones at the Patriarchate and at the nuns who reside there. Iguman (Abbot) Teodosije, the head of Visoki Decani, the largest monastery in Kosovo, told me that Albanian provocateurs had started walking naked around the monastery in order to scandalize and humiliate the monks. The reaction of the KFOR soldiers has been to look the other way, probably out of embarrassment.
The international authority has recently claimed that the safety of the province has improved. Those claims do not reflect the reality, however, unless “safety” is interpreted in an unusually broad sense (i.e., stay in hiding, and you may not be hurt). Serbs still do not have freedom of movement, and the destruction of churches has continued. During this “safer” period, Albanian activists burned down what was left of the Zociste Monastery after the destruction of 1999, and this second attack took place right after Bishop Artemije conducted a liturgy among the ruins, during which, on the hill above the monastery of the Holy Archangels, Albanians detonated dynamite. Under these circumstances, KFOR’s decision (in November 2002) to remove guards from some churches is hard to explain, especially since, as soon as the guards were removed, two other churches were destroyed in an explosion.
To make matters worse, substantial rumors suggest that the KFOR soldiers who guard churches are to be replaced by the far less formidable UNMIK (U.N. Mission in Kosovo) troops. Eventually, so the story goes, UNMIK police would be replaced by the Kosovo Protection Corps, which is, in fact, the KLA under another name, though everyone knows that members of the KLA either carried out or at least incited the destruction of most of the Christian shrines. Even though U.N. Resolution 1244 explicitly states that the Yugoslav army and police are supposed to protect cultural monuments in Kosovo, it now seems clear that the resolution was never taken seriously by U.N. authorities.
Well-meaning officers are not enough. KFOR has refused to commit sufficient resources to protecting Serbian historical sites; in fact, some of the devastation of monuments took place near KFOR positions. KFOR officers try to excuse their failure on the grounds that they have managed to protect the most important medieval shrines—the Patriarchate of Pec, Visoki Decani, Gracanica—as well as the Church of Bogorodica (Mother of God) Ljeviska in Prizren. But their job was to protect the entire Christian and historical heritage of the region.
The actions of Albanian activists against Christian monuments represent an attempt to eradicate Christianity from Kosovo-Metohia. It is quite strange that the leaders of the “democratic” and “Christian” West, which sent KFOR troops and the UNMIK civil administration to bring peace to the region, have been silent in the face of the destruction of monuments that are treasures of the entire Christian world. The exodus of Christians, the demolished and pillaged churches, scattered crosses, and broken icons are a tragedy for all of Europe and for the Americas, which were settled by Europeans. Why the West, at the end of the 20th century, attacked a Christian and European people and then calmly presided over their expulsion at the hands of Islamic terrorists is a question that will have to be answered by future generations of historians.