Saturday, July 02, 2005

A New Religion Law for Kosovo

The United Nations Mission in Kosovo is working with the Albanian majority to create a law governing religion. Catholics are onboard with it, and Protestants are concerned but open-minded, and Orthodox haven't been invited to the table.

Yep, it's still Kosovo. An anonymous chaplain stationed in Kosovo writes a moving piece on the situation there:
During the upsurge in anti-Serb violence in March, I stood on a hillside south of Kosovo's regional capital Pristina and for 360 degrees all around fires were burning. The violence was well-organised. I knew it was not just houses that were burning, but schools and churches. I drove across Kosovo afterwards and saw the terrible aftermath. In the southern town of Prizren signs were still visible "Protected building – any damage will be prosecuted". But the signs had done nothing to prevent the churches and monasteries from being reduced to blackened ruins.

As a Christian priest, eight months after the violence, I still find it hard to find words to describe seeing with my own eyes the burnt-out churches, monasteries and homes – and even a hospital. It was a terrible, evil act. The Serbs have totally fled from Prizren. Everything they had there has been burnt. In the western town of Pec, some of the churches were attacked but are still standing.

. . .

I do not think that every Albanian wanted to burn down everything Serb, but many of them want the Serbs to leave. They are also intent on removing all traces of any Serb presence. Churches are important symbols and historical monuments – they show that the Serbs have been in Kosovo a long time. Some Albanians intended to show that KFOR cannot defend Kosovo's Serbs and wanted to take the opportunity to get rid of the churches as symbols. They wished to show that Serbs have no future in Kosovo.

While shadowy Albanian leaders planned, organised and executed the violence, many Albanians were eager to participate. Local Albanian police were not neutral: many helped the attackers by showing them the best route to take. This has made it all but impossible for Serbian police officers to trust and work together with their supposed Albanian colleagues.

. . .

Although Albanian attacks on Serbs are motivated by ethnic hatred, religion is an important element – even if the Albanians are generally not very devout Muslims. The Serbs have seen their possibility to worship taken from them as churches and monasteries have been destroyed and it is too dangerous for them to move freely around Kosovo. They face obstacles to worshipping God. Going to church is dangerous.

The draft law is "vastly improved," say the non-Muslim participants in the dialogue, but Muslims complain that "it does not introduce religious education in public schools or set out religious communities rights to regain property confiscated during the Communist period or compensation in lieu. Actually, he's complaining about "Three or four mosques and a Catholic church were demolished in Prishtina in the 1950s, and many elsewhere," not about the 76 churches destroyed in June through October 1999 or the additional 35 destroyed in March 2004.

And the religious education in public schools -- that would be Islamic religious education.

The Muslim community is also demanding 2,000 state-paid imams.

The Catholics are OK with the draft so far:
Fr Shan Zefi of the Apostolic Administration of Prizren, who represented the Catholic Church in the drafting process, said his Church is generally happy with the draft. "It is not perfect – nothing in this world is perfect," he told Forum 18 on 1 July. "But it's our first religion law, so it is adequate to start with." He said the Catholics hope that anything not included in the law now can be changed later.

That's the same church in Prizren that escaped any damage during the March 2004 violence; the chaplain writes:
Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were the targets, not Christian churches per se. In Prizren I saw the churches, bishop's residence, monasteries and Serbian houses burnt out, but the Albanian Catholic church was untouched.

Protestants are also concerned about the law making it difficult to start new churches:
Pastor Artur Krasniqi of the Fellowship of the Lord's People, a Protestant church in Prishtina, also has concerns, although he too recognises improvements since last year. He believes the current draft will make it difficult for new religious communities to gain legal status, and also questions whether Protestant communities will get tax concessions if they register individually rather than in one big alliance. He also fears that the law will not end problems over the lack of secular or Protestant graveyards (Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox have their own). He cites the problem of a pastor, who died last year in Gjakovo, who was buried with Muslim rites as otherwise he would not have been able to be buried in a cemetery which Muslims claim.

. . .

Some Protestants have expressed concern about the Religious Affairs Department, now within the Ministry of Community and Returns, led by Isa Ukella, an official who was in charge of religious affairs in the later Communist period. "He used to act against Protestants very aggressively then, especially against foreign missionaries who began to come in at the end of the 1980s," one Protestant told Forum 18. "He still pressures believers, warning them that they should be careful."

Pastor Krasniqi believes Ukella – who is a Muslim - has too powerful a role in religious affairs. "He describes himself as 'chief of religions'. That would make him bigger than the pope," he told Forum 18. "He likes to control religion as in the Communist times." He said he and his Church have always opposed a religion ministry or office. "The latest draft law speaks about a government religious commission made up of officials and representatives of religious organisations, but doesn't define what its role should be."

Unfortunately, the article makes it sound as if the Serbs failed to cooperate in a fit of pique:
Bishop Artemije (Radosavljevic) of Raska and Prizren, who heads the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, declined absolutely to discuss the proposed new law. "No comment," he told Forum 18 from Gracanica monastery on 1 July. The bishop has a policy of not cooperating with Kosovo institutions or the international organisations that run Kosovo. Forum 18 has therefore been unable to establish whether and if so how the Kosovo government invited the Orthodox to take part in the drafting process. Privately, two priests complained to Forum 18 that the Church had not been invited properly to take part.

What it's not taking into account are long years of persecution against the Serbs, much worse than anything the Albanians experienced, and an international presence with a mandate to protect the aggressors. The chaplain writes:
Individual soldiers within the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force were outraged, angry not only at the violence against the buildings but against the people. They told me it was hard to respect the Albanians after what they had done. They try to be neutral, but say it is difficult now.

Some of the KFOR forces did well – even at risk to themselves and their lives. But others did not, simply running away and letting the mobs burn down what they wanted. They could and should have done more.

The widely divergent responses of different national contingents is well-known and has already been debated within KFOR. But the reasons for the different reactions are clear: some were better equipped and trained than others, and had a clearer mandate from their politicians. The Germans were in such internal disarray that they just hid in their camp, which provoked a terrible row in Germany. One other national contingent I observed just packed up their gear and ran. Some nations simply had soldiers who were not prepared to fight (see F18News 6 May 2004

The chaplain notes the complicity of some Orthodox clergy in the discrimination against the Albanians during the early 1990s and before, as well as the efforts of Bishop Artemije of Raska and Prizren and Fr. Sava of the monastery at Decani in condemning Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and sheltering Albanians running from Serb paramilitary in April 1999. Nevertheless, the Decani monastery is standing today only because it is under constant guard of Italian KFOR soldiers.

When my leftist friends complain about the incompleteness of the U.S. news media, they're frequently preferring the anti-Americanism of the BBC. But I have to agree with them, thinking of the American media's obdurate inertia in realizing who the bad guys are in Kosovo.

This post also appears at Blogger News Network.

UPDATE Aug. 21, 2005: Welcome, Freepers. More about Kosovo appears on this blog here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Thanks for dropping by.

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