Kosovo's religious tables turned

Six years ago the US launched a noble experiment, becoming the first nation to proclaim international religious freedom as a goal of its foreign policy. Unfortunately, that experiment has been poisoned by interest-group politics. Usually the US speaks up only for persecuted religious denominations that have large memberships in America or good connections in Washington. Others are mostly ignored - as is the case with Kosovo now.

The ethnic Albanian Muslims who dominate that strife-torn Balkan province have been pursuing what a NATO commander recently called "orchestrated and well-planned ethnic cleansing" against minority Christian Serbs. In mid-March, Kosovo Albanian mobs destroyed 30 churches in two days. (The mobs were inflamed by reckless reports in local media, presenting as fact a rumor that Serb teens had drowned three Albanian boys; NATO officials now say they believe the drowning was accidental.) Some of these churches had been places of Christian worship since the 14th century, jewels of medieval architecture treasured by art historians worldwide. Today they're ashen ruins. Thousands of their former parishioners are now refugees; some are dead.

Imagine the outcry if these had been Baptist or Roman Catholic churches, or synagogues. But Eastern Orthodox Christians seem to have almost no sympathizers in the US except among fellow Orthodox - and among the few human rights advocates who pursue freedom not just for their own co-religionists, but for everyone. Especially friendless are the Serbian Orthodox, who seem permanently tainted by the defunct regime of Slobodan Milosevic. In the 1990s it was Milosevic who was doing the ethnic cleansing, and the Muslim Albanians of Kosovo were on the receiving end. The Clinton administration war on Serbia brought Milosevic's atrocities to an end, and a NATO occupation of Kosovo brought the goal of building a multiethnic democracy - much like the current administration's Iraq goal. That vision appears remote in both places.

What the Kosovo Albanians are now doing to the Kosovo Serbs is in part - but only in part - revenge for what the Serbs were doing to the Albanians five years ago. While some Orthodox leaders supported - or at least tacitly accepted - Milosevic's harsh policies, others actively opposed them. The Orthodox monks of Kosovo's renowned Decani monastery went out of their way to provide sanctuary and charitable aid to Muslims fleeing Milosevic's gunmen. But Albanian fanatics who now have the upper hand are targeting all Serbs. Their goal is a purely Albanian Kosovo free of any Serbian presence, even of memories of that ancient presence. It's as if a Palestinian state were to win control of Jerusalem and then start demolishing every architectural relic of Judaism.

The anti-Serb, anti-Christian pogroms have taken place on the watch of 20,000 NATO "peacekeepers"who've proved unable or unwilling to protect the shrinking Serb minority. From the moment those troops entered the province in 1999 until the end of 2003, Albanian militants destroyed or vandalized more than 100 Orthodox church buildings - often with dynamite. Not one was arrested or tried, even as attacks intensified last fall and winter. Instead, NATO command continued to dismantle posts and transfer guard and patrol duties to the ineffective UN administration, and to even more dubious local police. In March, Albanian thugs descended on Orthodox churches in Kosovo in assaults clearly organized in advance; many even arrived on special buses.A mob invaded St. Nicholas Church and its parish house in Pristina, Kosovo's capital, and set them ablaze while its priest hid.

"I was lucky they didn't look in the cellar," the Rev. Miroslav Popadic later told the Forum 18 News Service. "Otherwise, God knows if this morning I would still be alive."

Apart from verbal condemnations by the State Department and Congress, the US has done little. In 1997, by contrast, Congress threatened to cut off aid to Russia if it enforced a harsh religion law that menaced Protestants and Roman Catholics.

The professed US interest in global religious freedom is starting to look like the 19th century principle of "extraterritoriality," under which European empires demanded special privileges for their own citizens - including missionaries - in foreign lands. But the vision of the 1998 statute on international religious freedom was to protect bona fide religious believers - powerful and weak, indigenous and foreign. Unfortunately, US leaders don't seem fully serious about pursuing that vision in practice.

Lawrence A. Uzzell is president of International Religious Freedom Watch.

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