Kosovo and the Untold Religious Dimension

Opinion

Kosovo and the Untold Religious Dimension

Garentina Kraja

11 Dec 2012

At first sight, there was nothing unusual about the shelled mosque, with the aluminium roof of the minaret hanging on the side, in the village of Carraleve in 1999. To many reporters passing through the gutted villages of Kosovo during the yearlong war, this village in south-western Kosovo was merely a ghost town, just like scores of other villages whose residents were forced to flee to nearby woods to escape certain death, leaving behind their houses and places of worship engulfed in flames.

The once lively village, with dozens of two-story red brick houses separated from one another by neatly planted vegetable gardens and split in two by asphalt snaking into the woods, was a frequent scene of clashes between Serbia's armed forces and Kosovo Albanian guerrillas.

The unremarkable mosque, which was neither historic nor beautiful, at the centre of the village, with walls that looked like Swiss cheese pierced by shrapnel, seemed like collateral damage of a war that was being conducted by Serbia's leadership to ethnically cleanse Kosovo of its Albanian majority. Other, historic mosques as well, shared the same fate.

Fast forward to the aftermath of the conflict, when Kosovo was engulfed in anti-Serb violence, churches, centuries old and new, which dot the landscape throughout Kosovo, but are mostly situated in enclaves where Serbs lived in isolation since the end of the war, were often turned into piles of collapsed concrete.

The Christian Orthodox churches had in large part escaped unscathed from the war, but were targeted after the conflict in the wave of violence that had gripped Kosovo immediately after the war, and then five years later when it was directed at some 100,000 Serbs who had decided to continue to live in the country despite the animosity of their Albanian neighbours. Then too, it seemed like churches were collateral damage of the pent up anger.

Both times, our attention was grabbed by the ethnic component of the violence and there is no question that it was the ethnic cleavages that inspired and drove the conflict. That is why the war in Kosovo is overwhelmingly described as an ethnic war.

But thirteen years later, with some hindsight from the war, when we are left to examine and zoom into its very nature and remedy some of its consequences, the data collected and made available by scholars clearly indicates a pattern, a deliberate targeting of religious buildings throughout Kosovo.

As the post-war survey "The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Kosovo 1998-1999"  http://hague.bard.edu/reports/hr_riedlmayer-28feb2002.pdf submitted to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, an international court that investigates war crimes of the Yugoslav conflicts, points out, nearly half of the mosques and Islamic congregation spots were damaged or destroyed in the sixteen months of fighting in Kosovo.

The same report and media reports of the violence thereafter lists as damaged and destroyed just over 30 percent of Kosovo's Christian Orthodox buildings, especially village churches that were built in the last two decades. Some Catholic buildings belonging to the Albanian community were attacked during the war by the Serb forces and were rebuilt by Albanians after the war, another piece of evidence that religious diversity was not the cause of war.

What these findings seem to indicate is that while religion was not the force driving the conflict, it was an inseparable part of how the warring parties identified each other. Religious monuments were the public manifestation of that identity, as well as the social venues where these identities were further strengthened.

As someone who covered the war and its aftermath in Kosovo and lived through the upheavals of the last two decades, I found that part of the answer to this question lies in the fact that religion and the targeting of the religious buildings during the war and its aftermath in Kosovo was largely a manifestation of the ethnic divisions and the relationship that religious authorities had with the political forces as well as the broader context of their existence and cohabitation with other faiths.

In the early 1990's, as Slobodan Milosevic, the now-deceased Serbian leader and the mastermind of the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, rose to power with the promise to create the Greater Serbia, the Serb Orthodox Church, in part in an effort to bring back to its pews the flock that had become largely secularized in the formerly socialist state, sought to become the spiritual guide for the post-communist Serbian identity, one that would legitimize the Serb dominance over other constituent units of the former Yugoslav state. The Church – through active participation in daily politics - gave its blessing to Milosevic's politics of hegemony. This support resulted in a wave of church construction in the 1990s at a time when the Kosovo Albanian majority were being repressed.

The issue of religious monuments also has another added dimension. Kosovo Albanians as the main community in Kosovo, comprising over 90 percent of the country's population, are predominantly Muslim, and although secular and professedly tolerant to other faiths, it is a community that has had basically no experience of cohabitation with other religions for about five centuries.

Since the end of the war and the post-war hostilities, the record, however, has vastly improved. This is in part due to internationally supervised agreements that have put forth strict measures for the protection of religious monuments, and Kosovo's leadership that has become vocal in condemning any attacks or religious slurs, but also due to emerging interfaith dialogue. The low-key dialogue, which brings together at least once a year dignitaries of the Muslim, Catholic and Serb Orthodox faiths, has created a climate of cooperation and given a chance for individual religious leaders and representatives to make symbolic gestures aimed at reconciliation and integration, or gestures that signal their willingness to distance themselves from politics.

Kosovo's Islamic leaders often appear publicly and speak of this new phase in the relations between different faiths now present in Kosovo. Just recently representatives of the Decani Monastery in the western part of the country have applied publicly for Kosovo citizenship despite the fact that Serbia continues to be vehemently against Kosovo's independence.

But the real debate over the role of faiths in Kosovo's war has yet to begin.

Garentina Kraja worked as a journalist during the 1998-1999 war in Kosovo and after the war covered Kosovo's transition from an international protectorate to an independent country. She now is the foreign policy and security adviser to the President of the Republic of Kosovo. The views in this blog are hers and do not neccesarily represent the views of the Office of the President. She will teach the first Faith and Globalisation course next Spring at American University of Kosovo.