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23 March 2000

One year after the Kosovo crisis, Christians and Muslims are looking
for ways to resolve the conflict

by Karin Achtelstetter

Beehives stand in the warmth of the early spring sun shining through the bare branches of the trees. A small wooden kiosk offers home-made honey and hand-turned beeswax candles for sale. Scarcely a sound breaks the silence in the courtyard of the monastery at Gracanica. An idyllic scene - were it not for the Swedish soldiers of the UN peace-keeping forces, KFOR, squarely standing guard at the monastery gate.

March 23 marks the first anniversary of the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia. Has the bombing of the region brought peace? Are there any signs of hope for reconciliation? What can the religions do to help? Do they have enough influence in society to do anything at all? An international group of church journalists visited the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro from 7 - 13 March to find out at first hand about church and humanitarian activities there. The visit was prepared and led by the Public Information and Media Relations Team of the World Council of Churches (WCC), in close cooperation with the WCC's Europe Desk.

"During the war, everyone was religious," a medical student told me. "At first our god was NATO. Then after a while we didn't know who to believe. And in the end there were only the mosques and the churches left for our prayers."

Those words of a young Kosovar Albanian came back to me as I climbed the stairs to Father Sava's office. The walls of the staircase are lined with photos of destroyed or desecrated Serbian Orthodox churches. Since the arrival of the international KFOR troops in June 1999, over 85 Orthodox churches and monasteries have been destroyed.

Father Sava, too, had to leave his monastery in Decani and seek refuge here in Gracanica. Kosovar Albanians, outraged at Serbian atrocities, had threatened that leaders of Serbian Orthodox churches would be hanged or garrotted. "I don't know which they had in mind for me," Sava says, interrupting his analysis of the situation with a nervous laugh. He gained worldwide fame as an outspoken and moderate voice of the Serbian Orthodox Church during the conflict last year, using Internet and the World Wide Web. Despite the threats, he doesn't mince his words: "At the core of the problem are [Serbian President] Milosevic on the one side and Albanian extremists on the other." Belgrade had responded to provocations against the government in typical Milosevic fashion, answering violence with violence. But, says Sava, "Terrorism cannot be met with violence."

Violence breeds violence, and the danger is an endless spiral. But how is the chain to be broken? Father Sava does not share the optimistic vision of UN Special Representative Bernard Kouchner, who, on taking up office, spoke of his dream of seeing Serbian and Albanian children playing together again before long.

Rather than dreaming of a multi-ethnic community, Sava pins his hopes in the first instance on peaceful coexistence: "We cannot force people to live together."

"In their heads many people here are still living in the 19th century," Sava says. Which is why he insists on the importance of history. Kosovar Albanians and Serbs need to write their history afresh, together. "History must not be used for political reasons."

Sava counts on small steps: peaceful coexistence rather than a multi-ethnic society; democratic structures for Kosovo, but not unilateral independence. He admits unhesitatingly that Albanians cannot live under Milosevic, but adds that Serbs could never accept an independent Kosovo. "All our cultural heritage is here," he explains.

He knows that in the religious communities in Kosovo he is practically alone in holding this view. Both his Roman Catholic colleague in Prizren, Don Shoni, and representatives of the Muslim community in Kosovo plead for an independent Kosovo. Shoni even dreams of a federation with other countries that were once part of Yugoslavia.

Over a cup of coffee, Don Shoni speaks of his vision for the future of Kosovo - independence, perhaps a federation, democracy and opening towards Europe, not least in the economic field.

And what of the Serbian population? "It is time the Serbs asked us for forgiveness for what they did to us during the conflict. We expect that of [Serbian Orthodox] Bishop Artemije, too." It is Ash Wednesday and Don Shoni has to go to mass; his congregation is already waiting for him outside the church. He is in a hurry, yet he still turns round again and, with raised finger, says, "Kosovo is like the holy Trinity, it is indivisible, and Mitrovica is its heart. You can quote me."

Just a few streets away, Brother Mirón sits in his small dark room in the former theological seminary of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Brother Mirón is under personal protection like all the 45 other people - Roma, Serbs, Albanians - who have sought refuge in the seminary. The building is guarded round the clock by German KFOR soldiers. Adults doing their shopping are given personal protection, as are children playing on the street. Brother Mirón and his KFOR protectors daily run the gauntlet of the short walk to the church only few metres away, fearful of the violent reaction of their Albanian neighbours.

The drive back to Pristina takes us past a mass grave decked with flowers. In Pristina, Qemaj Morina and Xhabir Hamiti, representatives of the Islamic community, take stock of the cost of the conflict. Thirty Imams and theology students lost their lives, 210 mosques and Quranic books were destroyed, an estimated 4000 Kosovar Albanians - women and men - are in Serbian jails, not to speak of the countless victims who died in the conflict. Figures vary - Morina puts it at 10,000 to 15,000 dead on the Albanian side, with 5000 - 7000 persons missing.

"Nothing like this must ever happen again," Hamiti says.

But how is the spiral of hatred to be broken?

"The new millennium must be marked by an interreligious approach to conflict resolution," he concludes. "We cannot continue to allow religion to be used for political purposes."

Morina and Hamiti have consistently pursued this line, missing no opportunity for inter-faith conversations. In March 1999 - before the start of the NATO bombing campaign - they were in Vienna where, with other religious representatives from the province, they issued an appeal warning against the use of force to settle the conflict. Further talks followed, in December 1999 in Amman and in February of this year in Sarajevo.

In the Sarajevo statement, the Serbian Orthodox Bishop of Raska and Prizren, Artemije, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Prizren, Marko Sopi, and the Mufti of the Islamic community of Kosovo, Rexhep Boja, jointly condemn ethnically or religiously motivated acts of violence, the destruction of religious sanctuaries and cemeteries, the expulsion of people from their homes, acts of vengeance and the misuse of public media to foment hatred.

The document also emphasizes the importance of common moral values which hold for all religious communities in Kosovo, regardless of their religious and spiritual traditions. The common moral values can form a basis for

The first sign of continuous cooperation between the religions is the setting up of an Interreligious Council, which plans to begin its work in April. But interreligious cooperation meets its limits where people feel no remorse and cannot forgive. It grieves Morani that even in the Sarajevo statement the word "forgiveness" does not appear. Forgiving means that one side has to ask for forgiveness.

The big question in Kosovo is: who will take the first step?

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.