News Summer 2000

Decani monks continue efforts for multi-cultural Kosovo

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. The monks can travel only when accompanied by KFOR soldiers.

“We live in very particular conditions. In a sense, we are imprisoned here,” said Father Teodosije, prior of Decani monastery. He is a tall man in his late thirties, with long, light-brown beard.

Only 20 monks live in the splendid 14th century marble monastery — now the only Serbs in this part of Western Kosovo not far from the Albanian border. Most of the monks work in nearby fields, while others carve wood and paint icons. Thousands of Serbs and other non-Albanians have fled the area since mid-1999. [photo: monks at work in the Decani monastery bakery]

Electricity to the monastery has been cut off since October. Phone lines function only occasionally.

The monks have twice been stoned when going to a nearby village to purchase food. Now they do their shopping in nearby Montenegro.

A mile from the monastery, 20 armored transporters and more than a dozen tanks of the Italian KFOR troops have been blocking the road leading to the site, in an effort to prevent further attacks.

“We have confidence in the Italian soldiers protecting us,” Fr. Teodosije said, praising their “great interest and respect for our Orthodox religion.” “History repeats itself,” he added, 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,” Fr. Teodosije said, noting that in 1998, 150 ethnic Albanians found shelter in the monastery. But none of the Albanian neighbors has visited the monastery since KFOR was deployed in Kosovo. “We hear they fear punishment by Albanian extremists,” he said.

Unlike many Orthodox priests in Bosnia who sided with the Serb nationalists during the war, the clergy in Kosovo kept their distance from the nationalist ideology espoused by Belgrade and its manipulation of the Orthodox myth.

“We do not hate anyone,” says Fr. Teodosije.

The monastery maintains a web site — www.decani.yunet.com.

More churches destroyed in Kosovo

Orthodox churches continue to be terrorist targets in Kosovo.

St. Petka church in Grncar village in Vitina district was demolished by a time bomb on Good Friday. The church is in a region controlled by the American KFOR troops.

St. Parasceva church in Podgorce village, near Kosovska Vitina, was bombed on June 29. The church had been damaged in an attack last August but is now completely destroyed. Podgorce village was multiethnic before the war but all Serbs fled the village on June 25 last year.

On July 16 the Church of Saint Elias the Prophet was blown up in the village Pomazatin near Kosovo Polje, 12 km west of Pristina. Originally built in 1937, the church it was destroyed once before, by Albanian Nazi troops — the “Balli Combetar” — during World War II. The church was rebuilt in 1965. It stood only a few hundred meters from a British KFOR base.

Nearly 90 churches and monasteries have been destroyed or extensively damaged since NATO-led peacekeepers took over security in the province after Yugoslav forces were bombed out last year.

For more information about destroyed churches and monasteries in Kosovo, see www.decani.yunet.com/default2.html.

Kouchner, Artemije sign eight-point Kosova pact

Bernard Kouchner, head of the UN’s civilian administration in Kosova, and Bishop Artemije, a leader of moderate Serbs on Kosovo, signed an agreement in Pristina on June 29. The Serbs agreed to return to Kouchner’s advisory council in return for specific pledges aimed at improving the lot of the Serbian minority.

The promises include a neighborhood watch program to improve security for ordinary Serbs, more ethnic Serbs in the police, a foreign prosecutor and two foreign judges in each district to deal with inter-ethnic crimes, increased return of Serbian refugees, stepped-up efforts to find missing persons and free prisoners, measures to ensure essential supplies to all communities, measures to promote self-government, and a committee to help protect Serbian historical and religious monuments in the province.

Interfaith council set up in Kosovo

Leaders of Kosovo’s Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic communities set up a council in April to promote democracy and human rights, modeled on an inter-religious body in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“With one united voice, we again strongly condemn all acts of violence and all violations of basic human rights,” leaders of the three communities said in a joint declaration issued in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The text was signed by Mufti Rexhep Boja, Bishop Artemije Radosavljevic of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and by the head of Kosovo’s Roman Catholic community, Bishop Marko Sopi.

In a statement announcing the formation of the council, the religious leaders said: “The acts that have happened and continue to happen against innocent persons are evil and cannot be condoned in any way by any of our respective religious traditions.”

“We support building strong local democratic institutions that will continue to ensure security, peace and well-being for all,” the statement said.

The religious leaders appealed “to the international community to work harder on resolving the situation of all the prisoners, missing and abducted persons whose unknown fate remains one of the deepest wounds of our recent tragic conflicts.”

They pledged to work together to rebuild destroyed and damaged religious buildings in Kosovo and appealed “to our friends and partners in international agencies to assist us with the necessary resources to accomplish this essential task.”

Bishops call for end to Belgrade sanctions

The European Catholic Bishops’ Conference and representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church have called for an end to Yugoslav sanctions, saying they punish the most destitute members of society.

In a joint statement released in Brussels July 18, the religious groups said “the poorest people in Yugoslavia, particularly among the refugees, have suffered both physically and mentally. They are the main victims of economic sanctions imposed by western governments. We believe it is necessary to lift the sanctions and to this end we are appealing to the governments concerned.”

The delegation, headed by German Bishop Josef Homeyer of Germany, visited Belgrade July 13-17. Participating bishops came from Belgium, Switzerland, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. The delegation met refugees and victims of violence, visited sites damaged during 1999 bombing campaign, and met Patriarch Pavle.

The bishops agreed that “sanctions represent one of the obstacles to a new start in cooperation with Serbia, Yugoslavia and the neighboring countries.”

A similar appeal was issued in April in Vouliagmeni, Greece, by Serbian opponents of President Milosevic. The West was urged to end Yugoslavia’s isolation and lift sanctions as economic hardship is hindering political change.

The meeting in Greece was attended by leaders of Serbian opposition parties, emigre groups, senior figures from Serbia’s Orthodox Church, and the mayors of Serbia’s three largest cities.

Amnesty charges NATO with war crimes in Serbia

NATO broke the rules of war in its air campaign against Yugoslavia last year and the suspects must be brought to justice, human rights group Amnesty International said in a report published June 5. The 65-page report details a number of mass killings of civilians in NATO raids and states that “civilian deaths could have been significantly reduced if NATO forces had fully adhered to the rules of war.”

Archbishop of Athens condemns racism and nationalism

Orthodox Christianity rejects racism and nationalistic hatred, Archbishop Christodoulos of All Greece said on May 4.

Addressing an international theological conference, “Orthodoxy 2000,” at the University of Athens, Christodoulos said that the Church must oppose “the phenomenon of national racism, this fatal result of the formulation of nation states.” It was for this reason, he said, that the Synod of Constantinople in 1872 solemnly condemned plyletism (love of the tribe) in these words: “We denounce in condemnation and sit in judgement of racism, that is the racist discriminations and the national hatred and envy and separations within the Church of Christ.”

“Despite whichever difficulties and historic challenges, despite the mistakes, Orthodoxy continues to exist as a way of life and as the embodiment of the truth of Christ and the hope of salvation,” the Greek prelate said. “Orthodoxy, throughout its history, never became and was never understood as a theory nor as an abstract philosophical teaching, rather it was always word in action, an essential teaching, which directly regarded the life of humans and the history of the world.” [Athens News]

OPF appeal for end of non-military Iraqi sanctions

In a letter Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, head of the US Mission to the United Nations, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship urged an end to non-military sanctions applied to Iraq.

“War is always a cruel undertaking, inevitably resulting in the death of innocent people,” OPF secretary Jim Forest wrote, “but we have seen in Iraq that the only victims of sanctions are the most vulnerable and innocent members of society. Hundreds of thousands of people, mainly children and the elderly, have died for want of basic medicines. UN personnel, visiting members of Congress, staff of UNICEF working in Iraq, and many journalists have been among the many who have testified to this. Three senior UN administrators have resigned in protest: Denis Halliday, Hans von Sponeck and Jutta Burghardt.

“For a decade the United States has been the principal sponsor and defender of a strategy that targets those who are absolutely defenseless and have not even the most minuscule responsibility for the actions of their government.

“In its April 8th issue, The Economist writes: ‘Slowly, inexorably, a generation is being crushed in Iraq. Thousands are dying, thousands more are leading stunted lives, and storing up bitter hatreds for the future. If, year in, year out, the UN were systematically killing Iraqi children by air strikes, western governments would declare it intolerable, no matter how noble the intention. They should find their existing policy just as unacceptable. In democracies, the end does not justify the means.’

“Striking a similar note, former Assistant Secretary General Denis Halliday has said, ‘We are destroying an entire society. It is as simple and as terrifying as that.’

“It has been one of the great holocausts of the twentieth century, and now spreads into the twenty-first.

“The United States has accused Saddam Hussein of ‘cynically manipulating’ the humanitarian catastrophe for his own political ends. While Hussein has many sins and acts of cynicism to answer for, US actions seem no less cynical.

“We welcome the recent initiative to increase the oil revenues that Iraq is allowed to spend for repairs to its own oil industry and also to release a few of the hundreds of contracts your Mission is holding up in the Sanctions Committee. Such moves are small steps in the right direction. But sadly all the major impediments remain in place.

“We appeal to you to help define a new international response that will not permit the suffering of children and the elderly to be used as a means of political manipulation.”

UN official who quit over Iraq sanctions wins peace prize

England’s Coventry Cathedral has awarded its annual peace price to Count Hans von Sponeck, a German nobleman and former UN official who resigned in protest of sanctions on Iraq. He is a diplomat with more than 30 years’ UN service, including the post of assistant secretary-general.

He quit his job as UN humanitarian coordinator in Iraq, overseeing imports allowed into Iraq while sanctions remain in place, when he found that the sanctions were inhumane and unethical because of their devastating effects on the innocent.

“For the sake of the people, he was willing to sacrifice his career, livelihood and future,” said Canon Andrew White.

In a press interview, Count von Sponeck said that, during 17 months in Iraq as the UN humanitarian coordinator, he had become aware that the program was “unimplementable.”

“When, despite the disinformation, you see genuine suffering, you increasingly realize that the program is inadequate. It is a palliative for the sanctions side, which is achieving absolutely nothing. On all counts you see failure. The battle is being fought on the backs of the people. Sixty to seventy percent of adults are out of work. Factories are not working. There is profiteering and prostitution. What sort of examples are these for the children?” He said sanctions had led to the elimination of the Iraqi middle class and the elevation of the political elite and sanctions-breakers.

Count von Sponeck’s father was a general executed for his opposition to Nazi war policy. “As a result, I grew up in a household opposed to violence,” said Count von Sponeck.

Bartholomeos applauds improved Greek-Turkish ties

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos underlined the spiritual achievement and example of the Cappadocian Fathers of the Orthodox Church on May 10 at an open-air Divine Liturgy he conducted in the region where they once lived. He later underlined the importance of improved Greek-Turkish relations, which helped make a Liturgy in such a setting possible.

Surrounded by hundreds of former chapels and monasteries carved in stone, Bartholomeos spoke of the role of Saints Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa as examples of those of whom Jesus said “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

“The Cappadocian saints… are continually studied in both East and West and they nourish, through incessant rivers of living water, Christians who thirst for the truth of the heart,” he said.

The patriarch pointed to the eerily magnificent surrounding monuments of faith as witnesses of divine grace. “The countless surviving chapels and caves in which God was worshiped, even though they have been gradually eroded by time, have made no small contribution to this region’s fame. All these reflect and convey that God appeared on earth and lived with man and inspired the faithful to seek His Love,” Bartholomeos said.

In an emotional reference to the descendants of the Cappadocians, Greeks who were forced to leave their ancestral homeland in the Greek-Turkish population exchange after the 1922 Asia Minor War, Bartholomeos said that they “still constitute evidence of and bear witness to the martyrdom of the saints and pious residents of Cappadocia” and to this day “are distinguished by their deep faith and piety, as well as the creativity and patience that spring therefrom” which they transmitted to their children. “They come today as pious and friendly pilgrims to this holy ground,” he said.

Bartholomeos called for even closer Greek-Turkish ties and for Athens to do all it can to facilitate the course of Turkey’s European Union accession, in addressing the Athonite monks. “The Turkish constitution provides for freedom of religion and equality regardless of faith, race and language, and we see the letter of the law taking on flesh and bones through Turkey’s European course,” he told reporters.

He urged Turks and Greeks to “love one another more, to respect each other’s particularities, national origin, religion and traditions so that, hand in hand, they can bridge the Aegean with a spiritual bridge of unbreakable friendship.”

Alexy II: Meeting with Pope possible in “foreseeable future”

Patriarch Alexy hopes for a meeting with Pope John Paul “in the foreseeable future,” he said in June. He believes it should “bring a concrete positive result and improve relations between Churches rather than be just a meeting before cameras.”

Alexy II told Itar-Tass that proselytizing — that is, conversion of people living in traditional Orthodox areas, including in western Ukraine, into another faith — is the main obstacles to the development of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Vatican.

The patriarch hoped the Vatican will respect the canonical rights of the Moscow Patriarchate which has been operating in these areas for hundreds of years. “This problem is first of all the question of principles of Christian morale and ethics of mutual respect,” he said.

In 1997, the leaders of the two Churches were expected to sign a declaration condemning the practice of proselytizing. However, the meeting was canceled after the Vatican had refused to include this provision into the document.

Tirana’s Archbishop Anastasios proposes church-state dialogue

In June, Archbishop of Tirana Anastasios proposed dialogue as a means of resolving the current dispute between the Church and the state.

“I believe that only with a serious, calm and patient dialogue, despite whatever difficulties, can the appropriate solution be sought to the specific problems which arise in a living society,” he told reporters, adding that “only with such a dialogue is the unimpeded development of a society of solidarity and the persuasion of the Church which proclaims freedom and love safeguarded.”

Greece approves first Athens Mosque since Ottomans

The Greek parliament Tuesday approved the building of the first mosque in Athens since the early 19th century when Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Turks.

Voting June 21, 55 deputies backed the decision to build a mosque, which is intended to serve the worship needs of Muslims living in the capital and Muslim athletes competing at the 2004 Olympic Games here. Forty deputies voted against the decision.

Links2Go award for OPF web site

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship’s In Communion Website was selected in July as a Links2Go “Key Resource” in the category Orthodox Christianity.

“Each quarter, Links2Go samples millions of web pages to determine which pages are most heavily cited by web pages authors,” the citation reads. “Your web site is one of the most relevant pages related to a particular topic on the web today, using an objective statistical measure applied to an extremely large data set.”

OPF’s second annual retreat in Vezelay

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship held its second annual retreat in Vezelay the weekend of May 5-7. Again our host was the Orthodox parish of St. Germain d’Auxerre and St. Etienne. The retreat centered on the revelation of human values through Jesus Christ, and was attended by 45 participants from France, Belgium, England, Holland, Romania and the USA.

The principal speakers were Archbishop Joseph, responsible for Romanian parishes in France, and Bishop Basil of Sergievo, from Oxford.

Reflecting on the Gospel of Saint John, Archbishop Joseph cited many passages, including those on the crucifixion and the Last Supper, emphasizing God’s love for his people. He discussed man’s preference for darkness and our refusal to acknowledge God’s love. He pointed out that our Creator affirms his love for mankind by making each of us a door through which he seeks to enter the world. Love is the sign of belonging to the Church. Through the Holy Spirit we rediscover God’s love for the world.

On Saturday afternoon the group venerated the relics of Saint Mary Magdalene in the crypt of the Vezelay Basilica. Father Stephen Headley presided.

On Sunday, Bishop Basil shared some thoughts regarding the origins of violence. He said that God created and willed differences in this world, and that Christ came into the world to create harmony. The role of the Church, he said, is to surpass differences and divisions, just as Christ would not accept division.

The retreat ended Sunday evening with the decision to establish a French OPF branch: Fraternite Orthodoxe pour la Paix

The French branch will continue to hold annual retreats in Vezelay and will undertake certain publishing activities in French: an ongoing publication, a book containing some of the more significant articles from past issues of In Communion, and a possible translation of For the Peace from Above: an Orthodox Resource book on War, Peace and Nationalism, published by Syndesmos.

– Eleni Cambourelis, Paris