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Kosovo: Serb Church Concerns

Serb clerics have mixed feelings about KFOR efforts to protect vulnerable churches.
By Tatjana Matic

The international community's decision to keep protective checkpoints around Serb places of worship may not be enough to appease the clergy, who insist damaged churches are repaired and those who've vandalised them punished.


Tension has been growing for some months between the Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, on the one hand and the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK, and the NATO-led peacekeepers KFOR, on the other.


And the January 23 decision to suspend plans to remove checkpoints around endangered churches and monasteries in the protectorate is being seen as an attempt to improve relations between the two.


But while SPC spokesperson Father Sava of Decani monastery described the development as an "encouraging sign", he told IWPR that it won't solve the problems facing Kosovo's Serb minority.


There have been more than 100 attacks on Orthodox sites and artifacts during the past three years - and the SPC blames the international community for the fact that none of the destroyed buildings have been rebuilt.


After Serb forces withdrew from Kosovo in June 1999, there were a series of attacks on Orthodox churches in revenge for the 218 mosques destroyed during the conflict between the Yugoslav army and the Kosovo Liberation Army.


These attacks decreased after the first few months of peace, as UNMIK and the NATO-led peacekeepers KFOR began to control the situation with round-the-clock patrols to protect remaining churches.


The decision to scale down this level of protection was made in May of last year. UNMIK chief Michael Steiner announced that as the general security situation had improved, KFOR checkpoints in villages and around church buildings would be reduced and gradually removed.


There would still be 24-hour protection for churches more than a century old, but others - mostly built during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic as a symbol of Serb domination - would no longer be watched.


KFOR spokesperson Tony Adams explained that the May decision was made after long consideration of the protectorate's security situation. "When criminals know that KFOR is always in one place, they will avoid that area. But there will be no place to hide from our mobile patrols," he said.


But the SPC warned that every building left would be vulnerable unless they're constantly monitored. "We are convinced that KFOR's permanent presence can prevent further attacks on these churches, which are situated in areas where there are no more Serbs," said Father Sava. "Even damaged buildings would be in danger of repeated destruction without such protection."


The SPC cites the destruction in November of Ljubovo's Church of St Vasilije Ostroski and the vandalism of the Church of All Saints in Djurakovac as a direct consequence of the KFOR decision.


After repeated requests from the Serb clergy, KFOR agreed to keep monuments of cultural and historical significance - and those used for religious purposes - under close watch.


But this is not enough to appease the SPC, which has repeatedly stated that such buildings are disused only because the Serb population was forced out of the area - and that leaving the churches without protection would send a negative message to the displaced population.


Although satisfied with KFOR's decision to retain the checkpoints, the SPC believes that the situation will not change until UNMIK and KFOR begin legal proceedings against those who carry out such attacks, and make an effort to rebuild the damaged buildings.


Democratic Party of Kosovo, PDK, deputy Bajram Rexhepi has spoken out against the events in Djurakovac and Ljubovo, calling for "the criminals who destroyed the churches be found and arrested" - but so far, nobody has been charged with these or any other attacks.


"We understand that the UNMIK has its hands tied because the Albanians do not dare to testify, and it also does not want to bring itself into conflict with extremists," Father Sava told IWPR. "But everything is known in Kosovo and no one has the courage to publicly identify the perpetrators."


UNMIK police spokesperson Derek Chapell told IWPR that investigations into the attacks are continuing. "The biggest problem is that all such attacks are on abandoned churches, so we only learn of them after a certain time has passed. That makes it almost impossible to establish the time of the incident - and therefore identify those responsible," he said.


For the moment, the SPC still feels that it does not have any support from UNMIK and KFOR in its bid to rebuild the vandalised buildings.


Father Sava cited the destruction, in the summer of 1999, of the 14th century Zociste monastery as an example.


Bishop Artemije, PDK leader Hasim Taqi and John Menzies, chief of the American office in Pristina, visited the site in spring 2002 and agreed that work could go ahead.


The SPC put funds in place, but the plan collapsed after a group of local Albanians attacked an Orthodox group who had gathered for a special service in the middle of July. The remains of the monastery were then set on fire.


After the incident, KFOR apparently refused to provide 24-hour protection as requested - claiming that doing so in a predominantly Albanian area would provoke tensions. The reconstruction project has now been shelved.


Tatjana Matic is IWPR associate from Pristina and correspondent of Radio Deutche Welle from Kosovo.


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