The Church Reaps That Which It Has Sown

After its early alliance with Milosevic, the Serbian Orthodox Church is struggling to present itself as a new voice of moderation.

The Church Reaps That Which It Has Sown

After its early alliance with Milosevic, the Serbian Orthodox Church is struggling to present itself as a new voice of moderation.

With Serbia defeated militarily, NATO troops occupying Kosovo and Serbs moving out of the province, the Serbian Orthodox Church has turned on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and called for his resignation.

But after enthusiastically backing his campaign for a Greater Serbia for the past decade, it is finding it difficult to reinvent itself. The church is paying the price for having tied its colours to Milosevic's mast in the 1980s. Indeed, Milosevic's defeat and the on-going Serb exodus from Kosovo is in many respects as much a defeat for the church as for the Yugoslav President.

With more than 50,000 Serbs on the move, the church itself is coming under pressure in what it used to call its holy land. in an attempt to salvage something from the Kosovo debacle, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, rushed to Pec, home of the Serbian Patriarchate during Ottoman rule, as soon as the NATO bombing ended and urged Serbs and Montenegrins to remain. However, his message has fallen on deaf ears as most chose to flee the town--which had been cleansed of its Albanian inhabitants in April--rather than wait the return of their former neighbours.

Bishop Artemije of Raska and Prizren, who remains in Kosovo, is pleading for the release of a Serbian Orthodox priest who has been abducted by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). And Mother Anastasija, the mother superior of the Devic convent, an institution which dates back to the 15th century, says that 30 KLA fighters held nine nuns prisoner until French KFOR soldiers arrived. In addition, church relics have been destroyed and the letters UCK, the Albanian acronym for the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), scribbled on religious buildings.

The eruption of violence in Kosovo in February 1998 and the subsequent 16 months of fighting put the church in a difficult position. It was a witness to the suffering of Serbs, their expulsion and/or abduction, at the hands of the KLA. Yet this almost paled into insignificance besides the brutal repression inflicted by the Serbian police against Kosovo's Albanian population.

Events in Decani, home of one of the most celebrated Serbian Orthodox monasteries, illustrate the church's dilemma.

At the end of April 1998, the monks witnessed as the KLA entered the village and expelled or detained the Serb population. Many of those detained were found dead in August in a mass grave. Those who escaped from the KLA sought refuge in the monastery.

A month later, the monks witnessed further atrocities as the Serbian police extracted their revenge, expelling the Albanian population, and looting and burning their homes. The scale of the operation was huge, the victims have still not been counted, and the special police units rook cover in the forests behind the monastery.

Most Albanians--for whom the monastery has traditionally been viewed as a holy shrine--believe that the monks were implicated in the atrocity. The monks deny the accusations, pointing out that they saved the lives of several Albanians by hiding them from Serbian police, but are now guarded by KFOR troops for their own protection.

During the three-month bombing campaign, the Serbian Orthodox Church condemned the "NATO aggressor" for the suffering it inflicted on innocent Serbs, and appealed for a halt to "all inhuman acts", irrespective of who was carrying them out. However, it failed to condemn the systematic expulsion of more than 700,000 Albanians from Kosovo.

As a result, the current anti-Milosevic feeling inside the Serbian Orthodox Church does not reflect victory of universal principles over the national interest, but bitterness over Milosevic's failure and "betrayal of Serbdom". Indeed, the church first turned on Milosevic as soon as the wars for a Greater Serbia turned sour. Scapegoating the Yugoslav president cannot absolve it of responsibility for the events of the past decade.

While the Church never unconditionally endorsed Milosevic, who was, after all, a communist, it perceived him as a "necessary evil" and decided to work with him to achieve common goals and rebuild its position within Serbian society.

Having preserved and fostered Serb national identity during the centuries of Ottoman rule and played a key role in Serb emancipation and the creation of an independent Serbian state in the 19th century, the Serbian Orthodox Church was stripped of its influence in Communist Yugoslavia.

In the wake of the Second World War, the new Communist authorities marginalised the church politically, confiscated much of its property and land, and publicly and deliberately humiliated priests. Moreover, they imposed their so-called "red patriarch" on the church to ensure its compliance.

Milosevic's emergence in Serbia in the 1980s appeared to offer the church an opportunity to reassert itself and to get back the assets it had lost in 1945. It also offered the chance to be part of the crusade to make Serbia great again. As a result, priests joined Milosevic's mass rallies, where pictures of saints were carried alongside pictures of the then President of Serbia's League of Communists.

While Milosevic used the church to mobilise ordinary Serbs behind a national crusade, he failed to deliver any other of his promises to the church. There has been no restitution of its nationalised assets and religious education has not been reintroduced into the curriculum in schools.

Thus the church helped stoke the flames of ethnic hatred by, for example, dredging up and commemorating publicly events from the Second World War. Yet it then began to distance itself from Milosevic as soon as the war effort stuttered and it saw that ordinary Serbs were the principal victims.

The church viewed the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement ending the war in Bosnia as a betrayal of Serb interests but did not campaign against the accord lest it be accused of war-mongering. Nevertheless, it lent its support to the protestors who demonstrated daily against Milosevic's rule in Belgrade during winter 1996 and 1997.

Fearing that Kosovo's Serbs would be the principal, long-term victims of a conflict with the province's Albanians, the church attempted to moderate Belgrade's hard-line position. Together with the leader of the Serb Resistance Movement in Kosovo, Momcilo Trajkovic, Bishop Artemije presented themselves as an alternative Serb voice from Kosovo, calling for the Serb-Albanian co-existence and mutual tolerance.

However, they were ignored by the international community and Milosevic succeeded in silencing their opposition by his control of the media. When the talks in Rambouillet commenced, the delegation of Serbs from Kosovo was not admitted.

Many years ago, old Patriarch Pavle was quoted famously as saying: "One cannot serve God and the devil, since once he is used to evil, it is hard for a man to do good." And hard to be known for it, even if one tries. Today, when the exodus of Serbs from Kosovo appears irreversible, most ordinary Serbs are unaware that the church has appealed to Milosevic to resign, since state-controlled media refuse to report it.

Gordana Igric is a senior editor with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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