Kosovo Serbs seek hope at Christmas service

GRACANICA, Yugoslavia, Jan 7, 2000 -- (Reuters) Kosovo Serbs gathered at a 14th century monastery on Thursday for an Orthodox Christmas Eve service, hoping their festive season may herald a prolonged period of peace after a year of violence and turmoil.

Bishop Artemije, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, led the service in Gracanica, south of the capital city Pristina and one of the few towns in Kosovo where Serbs outnumber members of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority.

"May this year and the years to come be lived in peace and happiness," declared Artemije, an elderly man with a long gray beard wearing a shiny red and gold stole over his black cassock, before giving out sweets to local children.

Artemije turned the congregation's thoughts to the Serbs who have fled Kosovo or moved to another part of the territory as a result of revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians after NATO bombing drove out Serb forces in June of last year.

Angry at years of Serb repression, Albanians have killed and kidnapped hundreds of Serbs or burned their homes, although international officials stress that the number of incidents has declined substantially over the past few months.

Yugoslav local authorities say they are sheltering more than 200,000 Serbs and members of other minorities from Kosovo.

Momcilo Trajkovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement political party, said Kosovo Serbs would mark Orthodox Christmas this year with a mixture of sorrow and melancholy.

"I say sorrow and melancholy because of everything that's happened in this area, what happened to our Serb people and to others, because we're not together," Trajkovic told Reuters outside the candlelit monastery after the ceremony.

"Many people are out of their homes, out of their villages... or out of Kosovo and Metohija," he said, using the traditional Serb name for the region.

"But there's also hope that things will get better, that this year and the years ahead will bring happiness, contentment the possibility for our people to return and for us to remain in safety," Trajkovic said.

Officials from the United Nations mission in charge of Kosovo been trying hard to persuade the Serbs to join a new joint administration they are setting up with local people.

The Serbs have boycotted the main forum for dialogue with the U.N. and Albanian leaders for months, in protest at the attacks on members of their community and because international officials have not met several of their political demands.

Bernard Kouchner, the French head of the U.N. mission, has held several meetings with Artemije recently and is expected to attend a Christmas Day lunch at the monastery on Friday.

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