Bishop behind barbed wire

Bishop behind barbed wire

BY Mark Mardell

29 Jan 08, 08:38 PM


This week Today and PM are broadcasting my radio reports on my Balkans trip. One of the frustrations of radio or TV is that you can find someone who has some very interesting things to say, but in the quest for balanced pieces reflecting the whole story I can only give them a half-minute or so of airtime. Here, I am not limited in that way. So, over the next few days I’ll be posting four different stories about how people are reacting to the Serbian elections or the looming independence of Kosovo. They are not meant to be comprehensive or in themselves balanced: they are a snapshot. But I hope together they add up to a bigger picture.

Gracanica monastery

This is the first time I have been to a church service held behind barbed wire.
Guard outside Gracanica monastery

Inside the chapel next to the Gracanica Monastery in Kosovo, a priest in white robes adorned with red crosses swings a silver censer, and the tinkling of bells and and the sweet, musty smell of incense fills the air.

His companion is preparing the host, behind a wooden screen painted with glorious icons.

Most of the congregation are nuns, clad head to foot in black. There are six other worshippers.

The youngest of them, a girl perhaps in her late teens, yawns and covers her mouth. The service started at seven and it is now nine and the ethereal rhythmic chanting is somewhat soporific.

Swedish sentry

Outside, a Swedish soldier stands in his sentry-post built into the side of the monastery, cradling an automatic rifle.

Coiled razor wire tops the wall and big concrete blocks stand in front of it. Not that his Grace, Bishop Artemije of the diocese of Raska and Prizren , has much time for United Nations soldiers.
Bishop Artemije

“Unfortunately, the destruction of our holy shines have been committed under the authority of the international community, in the presence of KFOR and UNMIK , so their presence here was not any guarantee or protection for our churches and monasteries.

“We can only presume what will happen to us if the Albanians would be granted independence of Kosovo. And I’m asking myself why would the international community sacrifice one historical nation and its cultural heritage in the 21st century. I wonder, why?”

Land of churches
There is no doubt Serbian churches were destroyed during and after the war and one American academic has made an interesting study of such destruction.

I have heard so many times how important Kosovo, the land of Churches, is to Serbs so I want to find out from a leader of the Serbian Orthodox faith how he sees it. The Bishop, a man with a rich voice, tells me: “Our main and historical seat is in Prizren but we were expelled from there in 1999 so this is our temporary residence now.

“The monastery of Gracanica and our other monasteries are like title deeds, witnesses, that Kosovo has always been and will always be part of Serbia. It is not only a question of territory, but a spiritual essence in giving identity to the Serbian people in general and to each Serb individually.

Inside Gracanica monastery

“And Kosovo is a symbol of eternal values which the Kosovo-Serbs determined for in 1389 in the famous Kosovo battle against the Turks . And Kosovo is the cradle of the Serbian spirituality because the biggest and oldest Serbian monasteries are here. It is the cradle of Serbian culture and Serbian statehood.

“What a heart is to a man that is what Kosovo is to Serbia and the Serbian people. And as no one can give his heart to anyone else and remain a man, alive, in the same way Serbia can never give up Kosovo and remain what it has been.

“What Jerusalem is to the Jewish people a kind of symbol of a historical, vertical line, that is what Kosovo is to the Serbian people .”

Kosovo lost

When I say that when I was in Serbia some people told me that Kosovo is already lost, the Bishop’s translator does a double-take and clearly believes she has misunderstood the question. She has not, and the Bishop chides me.

“First of all, you are still in Serbia now. Because Kosovo is Serbia and not only Serbia, but the centre of Serbia. I do not know who you have spoken to who has told you that Kosovo is lost, but Kosovo is not lost and will not be lost. It will always be in Serbia as an occupied part of its territory.“

Will it ever be rejoined with the rest of Serbia, then, I ask. And if so, how?

“As God wills. I do not have a solution in my hands.”

Many Serbs say they will leave Kosovo when independence is declared and I am unsure whether they really will.

Those who have the opportunity to make a better life in Serbia have already gone and conditions would have to be significantly worse to force the remainder to hold to their emotionally spoken words. But one thing is sure, the Bishop is staying, and so is the barbed wire and the Swedish soldier.

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