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Church Wants Final Say on Any Deal

Orthodox church says it cannot be sidelined in discussions over independence.
By Tanja Matic

As a key player on the political scene, the Serbian Orthodox Church’s opposition to Kosovo's independence lends a specific flavour both to public opinion and to the government's official position on the final status issue.

Speaking to IWPR on the Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, position on future talks on final status, expected to start this summer, Bishop Artemije of Raska-Prizren, the church's senior cleric in Kosovo, insisted it would have to be involved in any lasting settlement.

"The voice of the church should be heard," he said. "This is not about interfering with politics - the biological survival of the people and of sacred places in Kosovo is at stake here."

Speaking to the Belgrade daily Danas, for its Orthodox Easter edition on May 1, the bishop spoke in stronger tones, "The greatest tragedy for the Serb people would be for someone to accept Kosovo's independence and sign such a document. I hope no one would do that."

Such statements have a considerable impact on political and public life, analysts say, as the church has effectively taken over the state's role in Kosovo among the Serbs, presenting itself as their only remaining champion in the province.

This derives from the specific situation that arose in Kosovo after 1999, when NATO forces took over control of Kosovo from Serbia, leaving the SPC as the only remaining, functioning Serbian institution.

As Bishop Artmemije put it, "When there were no institutions left, the church had to fill in the gap and preserve the consciousness of the people and their spirituality."

In Serbia itself, the media have adopted a sympathetic approach to this development, expressing confidence in what the SPC has to say on the subject.

It is in part a consequence of events in the Nineties, when the church, following the collapse of five decades of communist rule, returned to the political arena to take its part in forming a Serbian national programme.

At the celebrations marking the 600th anniversary of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, when Slobodan Milosevic was strengthening his grip on power, the banners of the church and the flags of the Communist Party fluttered side by side for the first time. Milosevic had, in fact, organised the celebrations in close collaboration with the SPC.

The warm ties between the church and the government endured until the late Nineties, until, in fact, the appointment of Artemije as Bishop of Raska-Prizren. Together with Momcilo Trajkovic, a Kosovo Serb politician, he founded a national council that began criticising the regime.

Relations with the government then deteriorated, but with Milosevic's downfall in 2000 and the formation of a new democratic government whose legitimacy was not based on communism, all remaining ideological obstacles blocking the full return of the church to mainstream public life fell away.

Since then, church influence has steadily increased. One sign of this was the decision in 2001 to reintroduce religious instruction into schools, despite strong public opposition, without proper preparation of any curriculum for such a subject or the training of the necessary personnel.

Today, it is the issue of Kosovo, which Serbs see as the cradle of their spirituality, that provides the strongest bond, linking the Serbian state and the SPC together, while the latter remains the only organisation in the protectorate representing the interests of Kosovo Serbs.

Since the formation of Serbian political parties and the participation of Serbs in Kosovo institutions in 2001, the SPC’s overtly political role as the Serbs' representative has declined but the church’s influence remains conspicuous.

This was clear in the struggle over the Serb boycott of the 20004 parliamentary elections in the territory. On the eve of the elections, the church publicly opposed the appeal of Serbian president Boris Tadic for Serbs to take part in the polls. Instead, the SPC’s leader, Patriarch Pavle, called on them to stay at home on election day.

The almost total boycott of the election by the Serbs that followed again proved that the church has more influence on Kosovo Serbs than the Serbian president, even when it comes to political matters, such as elections.

The SPC’s political influence in Kosovo remains strong, owing to the political vacuum resulting from the absence of Serb representatives in Kosovo institutions.

"It's quite understandable that Serbs in Kosovo have most trust in the church," a member of the Serbian president's staff told IWPR. "When the Serbian state left the province in 1999, the church remained, and Bishop Artemije was for two years was the only 'diplomat' representing the Kosovo Serbs in the world."

Bishop Irinej of Nis, another member of the church's governing Holy Synod, told the Easter edition of Danas that the SPC’s participation in political affairs on Kosovo was natural, as "the church is not some imaginary organisation and cannot but show interest about its own fate and that of its people.

“The church would be glad if there were no need to meddle in affairs of state. But when hard times come or when the people are misled and deceived with false political views, the church cannot remain silent."

The Bishop concluded, "This is the situation now in Kosovo and Metohija, where the church is the only body that remains in the province to share its fate with its troubled people."

Not all Serbs are happy with this development. "The church openly plays the role of a para-political organisation with an undefined and unclear view of Kosovo's future and without any concrete strategy for realistic solutions," Sonja Biserko, of the Serbian Committee for Human Rights, told IWPR.

"At the same time, the church links the Kosovo issue with a dangerous anti-European attitude."

Biserko cited the recent words of Bishop Atanasije of Zahumlje-Hercegovina, in the newspaper, Pravoslavlje, [Orthodoxy], which advised Serbs to reject any deal that involved surrendering Kosovo in return for fast-track membership of the European Union.

"They tell us that if the Serbs want to go to Brussels, they should give up Kosovo. We return this ticket - we don't need such an entrt ticket to Europe," he was quoted as saying.

Analyst Mirko Djordjevic is more cautious than Biserko, noting that popular confidence in the church is so strong that politicians have no choice but to take into account their political views.

"When it comes to Kosovo, the word of the church is, if not decisive, is very important," Djordjevic told IWPR. "Politicians seek a common language with the church. They want to toe the same line, as they are aware the church has this aura as a historic protector of the people's interests."

Sociologists say the SPC’s political influence has no automatic link to the strength of religious beliefs. In Kosovo, where the old state institutions have vanished, the church has influence even on people who are not believers.

As a sociologist of religion, Mirko Blagojevic, puts it, "In Kosovo, the church is the only institution with the potential to mobilise people.

“The church's importance in Kosovo has spilled over the boundaries of the spiritual and entered the sphere of politics. Kosovo Serbs trust the church because it's there, by their side, is accessible and is suffering like them and living in the same conditions as they do."

Politicians naturally downplay this overlapping of the church and state power. Dusan Prorokovic, chairman of the Serbian parliament's committee for Kosovo and Metohija, for example, says the SPC has no direct immediate influence on official policy toward Kosovo.

"There is, of course, some indirect influence because the church influences a segment of the Kosovo policy through exchanges of information with us," he told IWPR.

Bishop Artemije puts it another way, "Our relationship is based on common concern for the people in Kosovo. In these relations, we present our views openly to politicians."

But Dusan Janjic, of the Forum for Interethnic Relations, says the SPC interferes with state policy on Kosovo to a much greater extent than either bishops or the government will admit.

Moreover, Janjic says church influence has grown markedly since Vojislav Kostunica became Serbia's premier.

"He seems eager to show in every way that he is a true believer," Janjic says of Kostunica, "disclosing his private visits to Chilandar (the Serbian monastery on Mount Athos), immediately before his election as prime minister and his private attendance at the Christmas celebration in Decani monastery in Kosovo."

Recent polls confirmed the church's high popular ratings. One survey, conducted in February 2005, showed citizens had more confidence in the SPC than in any other institution in Serbia.

Surveys conducted late last year significantly showed only 2 per cent of the population of Serbia envisaged Kosovo as an independent state, while almost half thought Kosovo would become an autonomous province of Serbia.

Mirko Djordjevic says people's confidence in the church's political know-how may be somewhat misplaced.

"Although the church constantly issues press releases and statements on Kosovo, [it] is not very skilful in finding its way around the political scene locally or internationally," he said.

"It turned out their decision to call on the Serbs to boycott the elections was wrong, as there is now not a single Serb representative in Kosovo's institutions."

Andrej Nosov, of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, says the media has built up what he says is an exaggerated reputation for honesty and competence.

"The media dares not contradict or refute the church's claims and statements in any way, or offer different kinds of information," he said.

"It is almost impossible to find the views of other religious communities from Kosovo in the Serbian press, or the positions of individuals and institutions opposed to the church's viewpoint."

The SPC’s prestige is additionally enhanced by meetings on Kosovo between church leaders and Serbian and foreign politicians. This strengthens the public perception that the church is a major player.

On his last visit to Belgrade in April, for example, Oli Rehn, European Commissioner for Enlargement, met Patriarch Pavle to discuss the reconstruction of Serb monasteries in Kosovo.

At the same time, an SPC delegation visited the United States and met the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, US State Department officials and congressmen.

Kosovo Serbs view these political activities positively, partly owing to disappointment with the results of official policy and Serb political representatives.

Sitting in front of the local church, which an Albanian mob burned down last March, Dragoje Ratkovic, one of 40 returnees to Belo Polje, near Decani monastery, favourably contrasted the work of the church with that of the Serbian government in isolated communities.

"Decani monastery provides an incredible amount of moral and material support," he said. "The monks give us food, money, crops, visit us and provide moral support.

"State officials, on the other hand, never ask us about anything. [Serbian president]Boris Tadic came here for about 15 minutes and promised to help, calling on us to stay. But we've seen no help, in any shape or form from the state."

Dusan Janjic agrees that the SPC has now come to assume a central role in the life of Kosovo Serbs, from which it will not be easily dislodged.

"The state must understand that there will be no dialogue [on Kosovo] in which the Raska-Prizren diocese is not involved," he said.

"They are effectively 'in charge' when it comes to Kosovo, because of their continual presence there and because of their direct contact with the people."

Tanja Matic is a regular IWPR contributor.

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