BY T.J. AND ERASMUS
There is something supremely changeless about the daily rites of an Orthodox Christian monastery, such as the 700-year-old community of Visoki Decani on the western fringe of Kosovo, which occupies one of the most aesthetically graceful, and gloriously decorated, religious monuments in Europe. But in recent days the abbot, Sava Janjic, has been combining his liturgical duties as a Serbian Orthodox priest with another activity: using social media to explain why his community has opposed Kosovo's admission to UNESCO, the UN's cultural arm. For example, he has been posting pictures on Facebook, including a recent baptism, and a shot of a desecrated Serbian cemetery.
On the face of things, his efforts have borne fruit. This week, Kosovo (a land that was wrested from Serbian control after a NATO bombing campaign in 1999) failed by three votes to secure the two-thirds majority needed to join the cultural agency: some 92 nations voted in favour, 50 voted against and 29 abstained. Russia backed its historic ally Serbia in opposing the admission, which would have been a big boost to Kosovo's efforts to consolidate its statehood, currently recognised by 111 countries.
But as is well understood by Father Sava, who has long enjoyed a reputation as an internet-savvy "cybermonk", the story will not end here. Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian masters are insisting that they will redouble their efforts to join international organisations and in due course reapply to UNESCO. At issue is whether or not the Kosovo government can be relied on to protect the country's historic Orthodox Christian places of worship, four of which (including Decani) have been recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage sites and been placed at Serbia's behest on a list of cultural monuments in danger.
The Kosovo government insists that it will take good care of the Orthodox sites, which were put under the protection of international peacekeepers after the conflict of 1998-99 in which hundreds of religious monuments (Serbian churches and cemeteries as well as Albanian Muslim mosques and shrines) came under attack. Serbs point out that that even with international guards, their sites can be vulnerable; NATO forces failed to stop thousands of ethnic-Albanian rioters wrecking historic churches when they ran amok in Prizren and elsewhere in 2004. Kosovo Albanians retort that the ringleaders of that riot have been prosecuted, while Serbs have never said sorry for the religious vandalism which they perpetrated. These days Decani is the only Orthodox site in Kosovo which is internationally guarded.
Although the fear is over-blown, ordinary Serbs worry that if given the chance, the Kosovar authorities would simply take over the Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches and expel the monks. For the 130,000 Serbs who still live in Kosovo, alongside 1.8m ethnic Albanians, seeing their kin lose control of those monasteries would be a devastating blow.
The argument over UNESCO has severely strained relations between figures in Kosovo who were previously seen as advocates of reconciliation, such as Father Sava on one side and Petrit Selimi, Kosovo's deputy foreign minister on the other. Mr Selimi has deplored the fact that the Serbian government and the Serbian church have, in his view, been working in close cahoots to block UNESCO entry. All other religious organisations active in Kosovo (Muslims, including Sufis, Catholics and Protestants) have signed a letter strongly supporting UNESCO membership, as Mr Selimi stresses. During the campaign Father Sava and Mr Selimi have been duelling on Twitter.
For Serbia and many of its diplomatic supporters, including Russia, the UNESCO issue is part of a broader concern: a refusal to accept what they see as Serbia's forcible breakup through a NATO bombing campaign. But Father Sava is making a much narrower and more nuanced point: he thinks the UNESCO bid should not go ahead in the absence of some breakthrough in the so-called Brussels dialogue involving the European Union, Serbia and Kosovo. The EU has been trying to persuade Serbia and Kosovo to find a way of living together, pending the eventual entry of both places into the Union. Father Sava also points out that Martti Ahtisaari, the Finnish envoy who laid out a plan for Kosovo's independence, always insisted on international guarantees for holy sites; in the cleric's view, this proposal has been brushed aside.
What really worries the Serbian monks is the argument made by some Kosovo Albanian academics that the land's historic churches, despite their frescoes of Serbian kings, are in fact part of the Albanian Catholic heritage, and that the Serbs are interlopers.
Even as things are, life can be hard for Decani's 24 monks and novices who offered succour to all sides during the bitter fighting of 1999. Much of the local ethnic-Albanian population is hostile, and the monks have not ventured on foot into the nearby town in many years. The monastery has also been fighting a long battle with the local authorities over the ownership of land adjacent to the monastery.
It does not help that the Orthodox Serbs of Kosovo are internally divided. Their current spiritual leader is Bishop Teodosije, a former abbot of Decani; he took over from another prelate, Artemije, who pioneered the monastic revival in Kosovo but has been defrocked, in part because he now takes a harder line, both politically and theologically, than the church leadership in Serbia. Some Serbs still support the dissident cleric.
In recent years, Decani's magnificent walls have been daubed with Islamist graffiti and shot at with rockets. But, in the immediate wake of the battle over UNESCO Father Sava says he does not expect new attacks because “they would be highly harmful for Kosovo and would only confirm allegations that it is becoming an Islamist society and as such unacceptable for Europe." In a roundabout way, the high volume of arguments over Kosovo's UNESCO bid could serve as a sort of protection, however temporary, for the monastery.