Serb Church: a Peace Broker?

Orthodox leaders say they can temper ethnic strife in Kosovo. Critics call them Serb puppets.

Standing in the shadows of the Prokletije Mountains, on lands still roamed by shepherds and their flocks, the Visoki Decani monastery seems centuries removed from modern politics.

It is here that bearded monks still speak vibrantly of Serbian kings from the 14th century, here that a stone wall circling the grounds is still thought of as the best protection against invaders.

But adjacent to the 650-year-old monastery, in a wooden building where the monks eat and work, can be found the basic tools of any political activist: mobile phone, computer hooked up to the Internet, stacks of newspapers.

In Serbia's restive province of Kosovo, where a 90 percent ethnic-Albanian majority is calling for independence, the Serbian Orthodox Church is the latest player in one of the Balkans' most dangerous disputes.

In recent months the church has become an outspoken critic of government policy. It has also tried to open communication between Serbian and ethnic Albanian leaders.

"But this society doesn't want to heal," says Janjic Sava, a priest at Visoki Decani. "They just bring in the police." Father Sava says Kosovo must remain a part of Serbia, but he favors bilateral negotiations rather than police force to resolve the current crisis.

He does not rule out the possibility of the government someday granting Kosovo an autonomous status within Serbia, as was allowed under the 1974 Constitution of longtime Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito.

Since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic rose to power in 1989 and stripped Kosovo of its autonomy, this region of more than 2 million people has been politically deadlocked, and simmering.

Ethnic Albanians say they will settle for nothing less than complete independence. Serbs call it unthinkable to surrender land they consider the cradle of their culture.

The situation has worsened recently with the emergence of a shadowy ethnic Albanian guerrilla group called the Kosovo Liberation Army, which advocates secession from Yugoslavia and possible unification with Albania. According to Serbian officials, the guerrillas have raided more than 20 police stations in the past five months and are responsible for more than 45 deaths since 1990. Some Albanians say the claims are part of a Serb plot to justify crackdowns.

Also heightening the tension have been demonstrations by ethnic-Albanian students, who withdrew from the state school system in 1991 and now want the University of Pristina to offer classes in their language. The Serbian police have responded to protests with tear gas and batons.

In a recent letter to the government, the church condemned police violence at the demonstrations and expressed solidarity with ethnic-Albanian students, saying, "The University belongs to this country and its state. That is not the same as the regime which controls that state."

In an earlier attempt at mediation, representatives of the church met informally in August with the ethnic Albanian's self-styled president, Ibrahim Rugova. It was the first time observers could remember a high-ranking Serbian leader shaking hands with Mr. Rugova.

Still, the Serbian Orthodox Church's recent gestures have been largely ignored. The Serbian government has not responded to the criticism, and the Albanian leadership remains skeptical.

"The church has made a common cause together with the regime against all Albanians," says Muhamet Hamiti, a spokesman for Rugova's party. International observers say the church has the same aims as the government, but prefers a more moderate approach as the best way to ensure that Kosovo remains a part of Serbia.

"They're aware that [Kosovo] could be lost. They're just concerned about who controls the land on which the monasteries are located," said a Western observer in the Balkans.

The role as defender of the land is not new to the Serbian Orthodox Church. During 500 years of Ottoman Turkish occupation, starting with the Serbian defeat at the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, the church was often the last vestige of Serbian culture.

King Stephan Dusan built Visoki Decani in the early 1300s, at the height of the Serbian kingdom. Like many of the other monasteries in Kosovo, it has been vandalized, burned, and looted over the centuries. For a brief time, Turkish soldiers even lived within the compound walls.

In recent years the Serbian government has been most interested in the church as a means to generate nationalism. It was an aggressive stance on Kosovo that helped a little-known Mr. Milosevic rise to power in the 1980s. And, some observers say, it was the nationalism of Kosovo that eventually led to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

"The politicians are very skillful at using the church," says Ognjen Pribicevic, a political scientist at Belgrade University. "Unfortunately, the church has not yet figured that out."

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