Monks defy pressures in medieval monastery
VISOKI DECANI, Jun 27, 2000 -- (AFP) Deep in the forests at the foot of the Western Kosovo Junik mountain, a handful of Serbian Orthodox monks hold out, defying ethnic tension and frequent attacks.
"We live in very particular conditions. In a sense, we are imprisoned here," Father Teodosije, prior of the medieval monastery Visoki Decani, said.
Only 20 monks live in the splendid 14th century marble monastery, built by the two Serbian kings of the Nemanjic dynasty, Stefan Decanski and his son, the king and last emperor of the Serbs and the Greeks, Dusan.
They are the only Serbs in this part of Western Kosovo, near the border with Albania. Thousands of Serbs and other non-Albanians have fled the area since mid-1999, fearing revenge attacks by Kosovo Albanians.
Before the Kosovo war erupted in 1998, the monastery, registered to be under UNICEF protection, had been the main Serbian Orthodox Church seminary for young monks.
But since Belgrade troops withdrew from Kosovo last June, following the end of the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, the Decani brotherhood has faced almost daily provocation, threats and attacks by men Teodosije described as "Albanian extremists."
Overnight Thursday nine blasts believed to be mortar rounds, hammered an area near the monastery; the latest attack on this "last landmark and border post of our existence and Serbian national and religious heritage in Kosovo," Teodosije said.
The monks "go nowhere without being accompanied by KFOR," NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo, he added.
"But despite that, our monks were stoned twice when they went to purchase food from Albanians in a nearby village," Teodosije said, adding that this prompted the monks to go and buy food in nearby Montenegro.
A mile from the monastery, some 20 armored transporters and more than a dozen tanks of the Italian KFOR troops have been blocking the road leading to the site, in a bid to prevent further attacks.
"We have a great confidence in the Italian soldiers who are protecting us," Teodosije said, praising their "great interest and respect for our Orthodox religion."
"History repeats itself," he noted, explaining that, during World War II, Italian soldiers "successfully protected this monastery from militant Albanians and looters".
There "are no civilians here now, while during the war, it was a sanctuary for all those endangered, no matter what their nationality," Teodosije said, noting that in 1998, 150 ethnic Albanians had found shelter in the monastery, fleeing the fighting.
But none of the Albanian neighbors has visited the monastery since KFOR deployed in Kosovo.
"I heard they fear punishment by Albanian extremists," Teodosije said.
Unlike many Orthodox priests in Bosnia, who had sided with the Serb national leaders during the war, the clergy in Kosovo has kept their distance from the nationalist ideology espoused by Belgrade and its manipulation of the Orthodox myth.
Teodosije, a tall man in his late thirties, with long, light-brown beard, calmly repeats: "We do not hate anyone."
"It is God who judges, not the people," he insists.
Most of the monks work in nearby fields, while the others busily carve wood and paint icons.
Electricity has been cut off to the monastery since October, while phone lines function only occasionally.
Its website at www.decani.yunet.com, the only source of information coming from the monastery and the remaining Serbs in the area, provides data thanks to support from the Serb Diaspora.
In the nearby Western Kosovo town of Pec, a group of Serbian Orthodox Church buildings dating back to the 13th century, face similar problems.
"We live like in a concentration camp. The only way in and out of the patriarchy is with KFOR assistance," Orthodox priest Mirko Koricanin said.
Several dozen nuns, and seven elderly civilians, have remained in the monastery belonging to the patriarchy, the seat of Orthodox Christianity in Serbia.
In one of the churches, religious objects have been collected from dozens of burnt and destroyed churches in western Kosovo.
Koricanin showed a broken and semi-burnt silver cross dating back from the 13th century, with a sign of the Nemanjic dynasty.
"We found it at one burnt church site. There are more than 200 wooden icons and other artifacts from destroyed churches," Koricanin said.