KOSOVO IN THE HISTORY OF THE SERBIAN CHURCH
by Veselin Kesich
The world now knows Kosovo as the site of senseless atrocities and brutal bombing. This small poor province of Yugoslavia has had a turbulent history, although direct bloody confrontations between its two ethnic groups, Serbian and Albanian, are relatively recent. They began when the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires were breaking up. As national consciousness of both Serbs and Albanians rose, the region suffered the consequences of external interference. During World War II Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany as occupiers encouraged the Albanians against the Serbs in Kosovo, pursuing their own interests. With the fall of Communist power in 1991, the Yugoslav leadership was determined to preserve its collapsing totalitarian system at any price, and engaged in open conflict with the Kosovo secessionists, which led to the “cleansing” of the Albanian majority. With the entrance of NATO powers, the “Kosovo crisis” intensified and was transformed into the “Kosovo catastrophe.” These events have brought suffering to the people of Kosovo, first to the Albanians and then to the Serbs.
Yet the destruction, hostility and killing of the last decade of the twentieth century should not obscure the era of peaceful and constructive contacts between Serbs (Kosovci) and Albanians (Kosovars). Both are rooted in the land of Kosovo and share the cultural, religious and emotional attachment to this region, so rich in history and symbolism. Each nationality claims rights to the same piece of land. The purpose of this article is to explore some important historical links between these two distinct ethnic groups, with particular emphasis upon the place and meaning of Kosovo in the history of the Serbian church.
Before the Slavic immigration, the province of Illyria, which included Kosovo, already had an organized church, and among the fourth century martyrs Phlor and Laur came from the Kosovo region. Subsequently the invasions of Goths, Avars and Slavs destroyed many monuments of Christian antiquity in Illyria.
By the seventh century the Byzantine emperor Heraclius found a large pagan Slavic population resident in his domains. The Slavs were spreading widely through the Balkan Peninsula, looking for farmland along the riverbanks. Here they came into contact with the indigenous population, Illyrians and Thracians. When they invaded, the Slavs were speaking a relatively homogeneous language, but their historical experience began splitting them apart. Those settling in the region known as Raska (Rascia), including the territory of Kosovo took the name of the dominant tribe, “Serbs.” Under the Slavic pressure, the indigenous Illyrians took refuge in the mountains. The Albanians claim descent from these Illyrians. This process continued for about three centuries. By the eleventh century the Kosovo region was predominantly Slavic.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, the church was still one, but the two centers, Rome and Constantinople, were rivals in expanding their influence in the Balkans. Illyria became increasingly a ground for competing missionary efforts. With the reign of Charlemagne and the successful Christianization of the Germanic tribes, Rome experienced a new sense of power.
Constantinople responded to the challenge by sending two Slavic-speaking brothers to conduct a mission to the Slavic-speaking people of Moravia. Constantine, (c. 826-869, with the monastic name of Cyril) and Methodius (c. 815-885) had learned Slavonic from Slavic settlers of their native Thessaloniki. Constantine created an alphabet for the use of the Moravian Slavs and translated some liturgical texts. Honored at first by the Popes in Rome for their initiative, the brothers were eventually suppressed by Latin-speaking missionaries in Moravia. A group of disciples, among whom Clement and Naum were the best known, escaped to Bulgaria, where they continued the Christianization of the Slavic tribes. Clement established a Slavic school in Ohrid, not far from Kosovo, and continued translating and copying texts. The mission launched by Cyril and Methodius proved to be one of the most successful in Christian history. They brought not only literacy and liturgy to the Slavs in their own language but a whole way of life and entry into the philosophical worldview of the Christian Empire. From Ohrid the written Slavonic texts went out to all the Slavic people of the Eastern Empire, reaching Russia within the century. The nearby people of Raska and Kosovo benefited from this neighboring activity and were turning from barbarians into Byzantine Christians.
In an age when the Byzantine Empire was losing authority, the Slavic chieftains began consolidating their lands into states within the empire. In 1169 Nemanja, the first great name in Serbian history, founded a dynasty that ruled the Serbian land for more than two hundred years. Born in Zeta (modern Montenegro), Nemanja was baptized according to the Latin rite, as Zeta was under the Latin jurisdiction within its see in Bar. When he returned to Raska, under the jurisdiction of the Greek bishop of Ohrid, he was chrismated according to the Eastern rite. He united the adjoining regions of Hum (modern Hercegovina), Zeta and Kosovo to his domain. Within this new state two Christian traditions existed, Greek and Latin. Nemanja, an Orthodox, sent gifts to the churches of the west, particularly to those in Rome and Bari. Together with his son Sava, he kept good relations with the Western Church. Indeed, Nemanja had a truly Balkan variety of “ethnic groups” within his realm, including the Illyrians, who were presumably the ancestors of the modern Albanians.
Nemanja as a devout Byzantine started a vigorous program of church construction. His son Sava chose monastic life on Mount Athos, where he was later joined by his father after Nemanja renounced the crown and took monastic vows. They built and organized Hilandar on the ruins of an abandoned monastery. This spiritual center has played an important historical role in the life of the Serbian people. Soon after its foundation, Hilandar was linked to Kosovo, as the see of the archbishops after Sava was in Pec. Of eleven archbishops from 1234-1346, seven were spiritually formed in Hilandar.
In the thirteenth century Constantinople suffered its most grievous defeat. The armies of the Fourth Crusade (1204), “devout barbarians,” destroyed the city, raping and murdering. They stole and desecrated relics of saints and forcibly converted the monks of Mount Athos to the Catholic faith. They drove out the patriarch and emperor, who took refuge in Nicea, and established a Latin Kingdom in Constantinople.
During these turbulent years, Sava advanced the prestige of his own church and kingdom. He went to Nicea to ask the patriarch to grant autocephaly to the Serbian church. He was successful, and in 1219 Sava became the first Serbian archbishop, with the right to appoint bishops within his diocese. He quickly raised the number of bishops from three to eleven, replacing Greek bishops who had been appointed by the Archbishop of Ohrid. The new diocese covered regions where Latin missionaries had been particularly active. His aim was to strengthen the Orthodox Church in these provinces in the hope of preventing rivalry between Catholics and Orthodox in dynastic struggles between his brothers. But he made no effort to curtail the existing Roman Catholic church in the Serbian state. Its hierarchs remained undisturbed and its members were protected in his kingdom. Despite the atrocities of the Latin Crusaders, Sava retained his vision of Christian unity.
This first Serbian archbishop was an indefatigable teacher, organizer and builder. The church flourished under autocephaly. His successor Arsenije (1233-1263) removed the see of the archbishopric from Zica to Pec in Kosovo. To expand knowledge of the sources of Eastern Christian spirituality among his people, Archbishop Danilo (d. 1337) founded a Greek School in Pec devoted to translation of Greek Christian classics into Church Slavonic. The name “Pec” comes from “cave,” as monks inhabited the many caves of the area. Not far from Pec stands Decani, built in 1327 with its gallery of thousands of medieval frescoes. King Milutin built Gracanica, near Pristina, in 1315. Tsar Dusan in the fourteenth century built the Church of the Archangel near Prizren. Building continued in Kosovo in the fifteenth century, even after the defeat in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389; the monastery at Devic (c. 1430) is an example.
The Nemanjid State reached its greatest expansion in the reign of Stefan Dusan (1331-55). Modern regions of Albania, Macedonia, Epirus and Thessaly were included in Dusan’s empire, which was thoroughly multinational. The church was elevated to a Patriarchate (1346), and Dusan was proclaimed “Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Albanians.” Under his instruction, the existing legal code was revised on the basis of Byzantine sources. One article asserts: “If I [the Emperor] should write a letter [on behalf or in defense of somebody] and that letter should undermine the Law Code, …then the judges should put no faith in that letter, but instead they should judge and act according to justice.”
Emboldened by early success, Dusan had the hubris to lay claim to the Emperor’s throne. Emperor John Catacuzene feared Dusan more than the Ottoman Turks. To prevent him from capturing Constantinople, he invited to Turks to be his allies against Dusan. The Ottomans responded, and for the first time reached Gallipoli. He also had the Patriarch anathematize the whole Serbian church. Dusan died suddenly at the age of forty-six, but the disastrous consequences of his claim long survived him. The way was opened to the Turkish army to advance into Europe, and it took twenty years after his death to remove the anathema.
The Serbian kingdom also started to dissolve. Local rulers fought for the crown and prestige. The Turks soundly defeated the remnants of the Serbian Empire at the Marica River (1371). Among the warring claimants, only Prince Lazar, ruler of northern Serbia, had any success in uniting an opposition to the Turks. First he turned to the problem of the anathema, which was disrupting relations between Greek and Serb. With the help of the Monk Isaiah from Mount Athos, he succeeded in having it removed in 1375. The Christian forces now could hope for unity in the face of the daunting Turkish challenge.
The Ottoman armies continued to advance, conquering Macedonia in 1380 and Nis in 1386. Lazar was the main leader of an effort to organize an alliance of Balkan peoples to resist them in a decisive battle. Contingents sent by the Bosnian king Tvrtko, as well as by Albanians, Bulgarians, Croats and Hungarians, came to the aid of his Serbian army. On St. Vitus Day (Vidovdan) June 28, 1389, Lazar’s army met the Turks on Kosovo Polje (the Field of Blackbirds). Lazar died in battle and is popularly regarded as a martyr.
Among Lazar’s allies were Albanians, led by John Castriota. At the time the great majority of Albanians were Christian, either Roman Catholic or Orthodox. Castriota’s son George, a hostage at the sultan’s court and a convert to Islam, received the name Iskander Beg or Skanderbeg. Deserting the Ottoman army, he came to his own country to organize resistance to the Turks. With the support of Serbs and Bosnians, he led an army into another battle of Kosovo in 1448 but without success. Skanderbeg came into legend as a hero for both Serbs and Albanians. The alliance Prince Lazar had forged ended, and Serbia was conquered for good in l459.
The Battle of Kosovo lived on in the oral tradition of both Serbs and Albanians. Even into the twentieth century, observers noted that Albanians and Serbs with roots in Kosovo were reluctant to start anything of importance on a Tuesday. They explained that this was because the Battle of Kosovo had been fought on a Tuesday. Some Serbs would also fast on Tuesdays. In fact, the battle did occur on Tuesday, June 28,1389.
The medieval Serbian kingdom left two remarkable achievements indelibly linked with Kosovo: religious art and epic poetry.
The frescoes in the great churches and monasteries built there are supreme achievements, masterpieces in color. After seeing these monasteries, André Malraux wrote: “Culture, when it is the most precious possession, is never the past.”
What reveals the mind and soul of the people does not belong to the past only. Art historians have seen the frescoes of Visoki Decani, executed between 1327 and 1355, as an inspirational artistic solution of the portrayal of the incarnation, where the spiritual manifests itself through the human. These frescoes, which had survived centuries of Ottoman rule, were endangered by bombing in April and May 1999, and the subsequent systematic acts of destruction. At Gracanica, “this treasure of the Balkans,” built in 1315 three miles from Pristina, deep fissures appeared in its frescoes, which are in danger of separating from the walls. “The collapse of Gracanica’s frescoes would be a cultural disaster,” warned Simon Jenkins. Some commentators have tended to minimize this damage in view of what the other side was doing. Thus the ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity, is used to justify destruction from the air, a crime against culture.
The second towering Christian achievement of the Serbian kingdom is the great Kosovo cycle of epic poetry. Lazar of Kosovo is its protagonist. Liturgical celebrations of Lazar’s death on June 28, 1389, began the very next year in Ravanica, the church he built in 1383, just a few years before the battle. From this center many other churches in the occupied Serbian territories started to worship God “glorified in his saint Lazar” on St. Vitus Day. The people saw Lazar as a defender of Christian ideals. Words ascribed to him on the eve of the battle, recorded as early as 1392, probably by Patriarch Danilo III (1391-96), revealed him to be a Christian prince. He foresaw his defeat and exhorted his followers: “We have long lived for this world. Now the moment has arrived for a heroic feat of suffering” (podvig stradalnicki), that we may live forever.” Within a decade of his death, when events were still vivid and close, the wounds not yet healed, the unknown chronicler of Povesno slovo (c. 1400) pictured Lazar as a meek, virtuous and brave man in his pre-Kosovo days. He was praised for being a compassionate and just judge. With qualities rare among those who have power and authority, he ruled his country with the care of a father toward his children. And when he noticed that the battle with Turkish power was imminent, that the Turks sought to “swallow the flock of Christ,” this ancient biographer records that Lazar exhorted his people to follow Christ’s example. He reminded them that to redeem one’s life it is necessary to pass through suffering.
About twelve years after Kosovo, the nun Yephimia, widow of Despot Ugljesha, who had been killed on the Marica in 1371, embroidered in gold thread a cover for Lazar’s tomb, containing her praises and lament for him. She addressed him as a “new martyr” whom God had singled out for this special honor. She praised the way he ruled over the land he had inherited from his fathers and for giving happiness to the Christian people under his rule. When the day of the battle arrived, the embroiderer continued, he entered it “with courage and piety,” and received from God “a martyr’s crown.” Lazar for her is not dead but more powerful than ever. She prayed to him: “Do not forget your beloved children who are left desolate,” but “bow your knee before the Heavenly King” and ask him that Lazar’s posterity may live long and do God’s will and “that the Orthodox Church may stand firm in the land of our fathers.” At the end of the lament, Yephimia offered a prayer for herself, opening her heart to St. Lazar: “I pray that you will help me and calm the raging tempest of my soul and body.” In our time the poet Milan Rakic hailed Yephimia, who “embroidered the suffering of her noble soul.”
The memory of Lazar was nurtured by his son Stefan Lazarevic, who ruled as a vassal of the Turks over what remained of Serbia after the defeat at Kosovo (1389-1427). Under his rule, Serbia became a place of refuge for scholars and monks from Mount Athos and the conquered Bulgarian territories. Constantine the Philosopher, who had fled to Serbia after the fall of Bulgaria (1393), contributed considerably to our knowledge of the post-Kosovo period. In his Life of Despot Stefan Lazarevic (c. 1431) he writes that after the death of “the blessed Lazar,” there was no place in Serbia where the “sorrowful voice” was not heard. Everywhere you might hear “Rachel weeping,” not only for her lost children (see Matt. 2:18), but also for “God-elected Lazar,” who suffered the death of a martyr. “He had a blessed death,” continues Constantine, “and his dear followers prayed to suffer death on the battlefield before his own, not to see his death.”
The Kosovo epic appeared against this background. Long before this epic poetry was written down and translated into the languages of the world, its core was transmitted orally, starting from the earliest years after the battle. The poet presents Lazar’s life as an imitation of Christ’s. The very concept of “imitation” comes from the New Testament. The apostle Paul exhorts the Corinthian Christians: “Become imitators of me as I am an imitator of Christ” (1 Cor. 11.1). They had seen him, listened to him, and observed his pattern of behavior. He had given them a concrete example to follow. Lazar also manifested Christ’s presence by a way of living that was observable and that could be concretely depicted. In the Kosovo cycle, the epic bard brings the events of Kosovo together with the Passion of Christ. He wants us to see an analogy between them. For example, on the eve of the decisive battle, the poem describes The Prince’s Supper, which Lazar held with his commanders, corresponding to the Last Supper Christ shared with his disciples before his crucifixion. Lazar like Jesus is calm, while all others are agitated.
In the epic cycle, the Supper is followed by the Prince’s agony. In the poem “The Fall of the Serbian Empire,” Lazar is confronted with a choice between a heavenly and an earthly kingdom. If he wants an earthly kingdom, he will be victorious, but if he chooses a heavenly kingdom, then let him build a church, let his army receive communion, and let them be ready for suffering, “and you, Prince, will die with them.” Lazar’s agony corresponds to Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Like Jesus, Lazar accepts God’s will: “not what I will, but what thou wilt,” and prepares himself and his people for their Golgotha. Lazar’s choice is not between good and evil, but between what may be good (avoiding suffering) and what is much more than any good thing (accepting God’s will and his heavenly kingdom), a more difficult choice. Lazar’s choice led to his martyrdom, and the other Kosovo warriors followed his example. Never before, according to the Kosovo tradition, had the people as a whole, not as individuals, been brought so close to the cross of Christ as at Kosovo.
The Kosovo cycle ends with two poems recording events after the battle. “The Maid of Kosovo” and “Death of the Mother of Jugovici.” Like the women in the Gospel, who, on “the first day of the week” at early dawn went to see the sepulchre where Jesus had been buried, so the maid of Kosovo arose early on Sunday to walk through the battlefield. The poem expresses the tragedy of defeat, the destruction of the hopes and dreams of the young people of Serbia. In “The Death of the Mother of the Jugovici,” the most moving poem of the Kosovo cycle, the magnitude of the tragedy is revealed. News of the death of all her family stunned her into immobility. All about her widows and children were wailing and sobbing, the animals were neighing, squealing, howling. Fathers, husbands, sons, brothers, as well as the head of the nation, all had perished. But the mother did not cry. She was not beyond pain, but enveloped by it. It was too overwhelming to react to it. When in the morning two black ravens brought her the hand of her son Damian, a sign to her that the Kosovo heroes do not have even a grave, that their graves would not be known, the mother’s heart burst for her nine sons and for old Jug Bogdan.
The Kosovo heroes were not only admirable for proficiency and valor; they are also martyrs, worthy of imitation. They are portrayed as people of high moral and spiritual qualities, who experienced Kosovo as their personal Golgotha. The bard presents the battle of 1389 as voluntary sacrifice, as the victory of faith over death. Thus the honor and holiness of that day, as well as its sorrow, was handed on to future generations. This poetry enshrines the Serbian historical memory, interprets what happened on Kosovo in the spirit of the Gospel account of the death and resurrection of Christ, and reveals an ultimate truth of human existence.
During these years of hasty analysis, pundits have often referred to the “Kosovo myth” as a morbid glorification of defeat and the very root of Serbian nationalism. But the Kosovo “myth” is a “Christian myth,” which does not celebrate defeat but the victory of life over death, of hope over despair. It does not inspire hatred, nor does it demand revenge. The English scholar G. N. W. Locke protests that there is “no glorification of war—quite contrary, it honors only courage and fortitude. There is more jingoism, vainglory and xenophobic incitement to violence in the fourteen lines of the ‘Marseillaise’ than in the entire body of the Serbian epics.” The poetry of Kosovo has religious, cultural and historical dimensions that transcend the boundaries of time and geography.
Murad I led the victorious Turkish troops into the Balkans, but was killed by a Serbian commander just on the eve of the Battle of Kosovo. His death did not affect the outcome, however. His successors put into effect his plan for the conquered territories. After disarming them and assessing special taxes, but retaining the existing social and cultural institutions, they were incorporated into the expanding Ottoman Empire. Like other Ottoman rulers, he aimed to build a Muslim Empire “with Christian brain and muscle.” The Turkish rulers brought Christians with special skills, as well as traders on land and sea, into the service of the state.
The captured population now had alien rulers who professed Islam. The conquerors did not force Islam on the population at first, but there were advantages for the convert, notably in a reduction of taxes and an elevation in status. In the first two centuries after the Kosovo defeat, relatively few Serbs converted.
Islam started to take root among the Albanians, now coming down from the mountains where they had been shepherds. Part of the reason for this may be the different historical circumstances of Serbs and Albanians. Living in rival clans, the Albanians lacked a cohesive state and an autocephalous church. The Serbs, on the other hand, came under the rule of the Ottomans with strong memories of the past, of their medieval state and well established church. The Serbian Church remained active after the collapse of the state and kept its people aware through the centuries of their religious and historical roots. The monastery of Hilandar on Mount Athos also preserved national tradition through sacred objects and documents. All these memorials stiffened Serbian resistance to conversion to Islam.
The most onerous special tax imposed on Christians throughout the Balkans was devsirme or “collection,” also called “boy tribute” or “tribute in blood.” Over two centuries, around two hundred thousand boys of eight or nine were taken from their families and raised as Muslims in the Janissaries, soldiers sworn to lifelong loyalty to the Sultan and at first forbidden to marry or hold property. For some it could become a road to power, as it was for Mehmed Pasa Sokolli, a Janissary of Serbian origin who became Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. Over thirty Grand Viziers of the Ottoman Empire were of Albanian origin.
After the conquest the Serbs had repeatedly petitioned the Turks to restore the Pec Patriarchate, which had been abolished after the conquest. With Sokolli as Grand Vizier, the patriarchate was restored, and the Grand Vizier’s brother Makarije Sokolovic became Patriarch (1557-15571, d. 1574). This move served the conquerors well as their armies advanced into Europe, insuring a peaceful population on the border. At the time of their power and greatest glory, the Turks were relatively tolerant, concerned with loyalty and tribute, and the Patriarchs from the Sokolovich family nurtured the policy of peace for half a century.
At this time the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate included Serbs in all the Ottoman territories, extending to Bosnia and those living north of the rivers Sava and Danube. It thus included those in Bosnia who had been outside the borders of Dusan’s extensive empire. The Patriarch became Milletbasha or leader of all Serbian and Bulgarian Orthodox, ruling from Pec in Kosovo. If we look for the seedbed of the idea of a “Greater Serbia,” it may come from the Pec patriarchate under Ottoman rule rather than from the medieval kingdoms. This reorganization gave the Serbs the possibility of preserving their religion, language and cohesive identity. The patriarch now had the responsibility to collect taxes and pay the annual assessment to the Sultan. In return he freely administered church affairs and dealt with grievances and disputes in civil cases, saving his people from the Turkish courts. In most cases Dusan’s Code of Laws prevailed. The Patriarch would visit the churches in his patriarchate with a large entourage and armed Janissaries designated for his protection. By his impressive appearance and freedom of action he secured for his people, he clearly benefited his Serbian faithful.
After the Sokolovich period, the captive population felt a deterioration in their position and started a rebellion against Ottoman rule. On their behalf, the Patriarchs in Pec, notably John (1592-1613), had almost unlimited confidence that the Christian West would help them against the Islamic oppressors. Pope Clement VIII, however, asked him first to accept Unia with the Catholic Church, which he categorically rejected. His successor appealed to Russia with the same request, to no avail. For these appeals to outside powers, the patriarchs were executed, usually by hanging or strangling. The uprisings had disastrous consequences for the rebellious Serbs as well, but they continued to believe that they would soon be liberated.
The turning point came with the defeat of Turkey and its retreat from Vienna in 1683. The advancing Austrian army liberated most of Hungary in 1686 and Belgrade soon after in 1688, then moved south toward the Serbian heartland. They managed to defeat a Turkish army in Kosovo and reached Skoplje, Macedonia. The Austrian commander, General Picolomini, died suddenly of plague, creating confusion in the Austrian ranks and forcing them to retreat.
Arsenije III Crnojevic (1674-90), Patriarch of Pec, had supported the Austrian campaign as well as the Serbian uprising. He decided to retreat with the defeated Austrian army to Vojvodina, accompanied by up to 40,000 families. The Vojvodina, with its huge group of refugees, mainly from the Kosovo region, remained under Austrian rule. This movement was known as the “great migration of the Serbs.” The eighteenth century saw a renewal of the Austrian-Turkish wars. Again the Pec patriarch, Arsenije IV (1726-37), trusted in Austrian victory. When the campaign failed, he feared for the consequences for his people and led another migration out of Kosovo into Vojvodina.
Now the subjugated Serbs of Kosovo were left at the mercy of the enraged Turkish army, which killed and punished and left the monastery in Pec in ruins. Some churches, like the one in Prizren, were transformed into mosques. The army used monasteries for their horses and other domestic animals. After the migrations the Serbian areas in Kosovo were almost depopulated. The unprotected remaining population came under pressure to convert to Islam, and several thousand Serbs from fifty villages around Prizren did so. The Ottomans invited the Albanians, by now largely Muslim, to occupy the land in Kosovo abandoned by the Serbs, who had been a majority there before the migrations. This was the first large incursion of Albanians since the Slavic settlement of the area and the lowest point in the life of the Christian Serbs living there.
After the Serbian rebellions and migrations, the Ottomans proposed abolishing the patriarchate in Pec. At first the Ecumenical Patriarch staved off this event by appointing a Greek, Janikije Karadza (1739-46), to the position of Patriarch in Pec. He came from a rich Greek family in Phanar, near Constantinople. From 1739 to 1776, six of the ten patriarchs were Greek “Phanariotes.” The last one resigned, requesting the Patriarch in Constantinople to abolish his patriarchate, as it was burdened with debts and could not pay overdue taxes. In 1766, Sultan Mustafa III abolished the patriarchate and even the very name of Pec. What had been a united Serbian church was broken into several regional churches within the Turkish Empire under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Those Serbian churches which found themselves through migration outside Turkish boundaries had to accommodate to different political conditions under Austro-Hungarian dominance. The Patriarchate in Pec was restored only in 1920, after World War I.
Now Kosovo was populated by a diminished and disheartened Serbian population and a growing Albanian presence, largely Muslim. Yet some ties remained between these inhabitants. They both recognized the great Kosovo monuments as their own heritage. When the angry Turkish troops came in to destroy the medieval monasteries of Pec and Decani, some Albanians were observed to protect these sacred sites. They also prevented desecration of Christian cemeteries, as they were aware that some of their own ancestors were buried there. They respected the Byzantine common past, even if they were no longer Christian. The collective memory and ties between the people persisted down to the latest flare-up of nationalist clashes.
Throughout the rest of Serbia and Bosnia the pattern of rebellion and repression continued through the nineteenth century. In 1875 the Christian rayah, heavily taxed in Bosnia and Hercegovina by their Muslim landowners, began a large-scale rebellion. The scale and success of the uprising shook the declining Ottoman Empire. The European powers convened a congress in Berlin in 1878 to solve the Bosnian problem. It made decisions that would affect the future course of events in the Balkans. It confirmed the independence of Serbia and Montenegro. Unwilling to condone the complete withdrawal of Turkey from Europe, however, it left Macedonia under Ottoman rule. This led to the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913. By placing Bosnia and Hercegovina under Austro-Hungarian rule, the Congress sowed the seeds of the First World War.
The Albanian tribal chieftains of Kosovo, expecting their freedom, met in Prizren and founded what would become the Prizren league. They asked to be put on the agenda of the Berlin Congress, but the appeal was rejected. Bismarck, the German chancellor, declared that there was no such thing as “an Albanian nationality.” Kosovo was left in the Ottoman Empire, which now confronted a threat from the Albanian national awakening. The Young Turks, who seized power in the 1908 revolution, concluded that, as the Berlin Congress had confirmed the independence of Serbia and Montenegro, these two states represented the greater danger. After Turkish troops brutally suppressed an Albanian rebellion in 1910, they made peace with the Albanians, granting them a degree of autonomy and promising not to change the structure of their tribal society. We see the first tentative outline of Albanian borders, within which was the province of Kosovo and Metohija. When the Balkan War of 1912 broke out, an alliance of Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece against Ottoman rule, the Turks entrusted the defense of Kosovo exclusively to the Albanians, and in 1912 Serbs and Albanians faced each other as enemies in harsh warfare for the first time. In the end, the Kosovo province was once again united with Serbia after five hundred years, but this lasted only a short time. On June 28, 1914, the day when Serbs commemorate the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. This drastically changed the situation of Kosovo, as well as all of Europe. Austria accused Serbia of responsibility, sent an ultimatum demanding total capitulation within forty-eight hours, and then on the excuse of non-compliance declared war.
Confronted with the full brunt of the well-prepared Austrian and later the German armies, the Serbs in retreating made a last stand on the field of Kosovo, where for the first time in military history they were attacked by Austrian airplanes. Defenseless, they moved across snowbound Albania to the Adriatic coast, and from here French and British ships transferred them to the Greek island of Corfu. The American reporter Fortier Jones chronicles the incredible hardships of the retreat. He recounts how the Austrian planes bombed civilian refugees and soldiers indiscriminately. Men and animals starved, and blizzards froze the soaked clothing. Many dead lay unburied “until only their bones were found the following spring.” It is estimated that out of a quarter of a million Serbian soldiers, a hundred thousand died during the retreat. On the whole, in World War I Serbia and Montenegro lost one million out of a total of five million people.
After the Serbian army retreated from Kosovo, the province, like most of the territory that would become Yugoslavia, remained for three years (1915-18) under Austrian occupation. During this period the occupiers favored the Albanians of Kosovo, allowing Albanian language schools and encouraging Albanian nationalism. At the same time they tried to reduce the Serbian presence there.
With the end of the war in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were broken up, and a new state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, was proclaimed, with the province of Kosovo within it. The state was renamed “Yugoslavia” in 1929.
Almost from the start, nationalist parties arose in opposition to the new state. The Albanian extremists in Kosovo were allied with the Croatian Ustasha movement. Both also found support from the newly founded Communist Party.
At first the Party took a benevolent attitude toward the new state. In 1920 Sima Markovic, General Secretary, hailed the creation of Yugoslavia as a positive political development in the Balkans, the fulfillment of South Slav aspirations. Shortly afterward, however, the Comintern (Communist International), directed from Moscow, labeled this position “reactionary.” It demanded the destruction of Yugoslavia as a “prison house of nations.” In 1925, at a special meeting in Moscow in which Stalin himself participated, Yugoslavia was labeled a “creation of Versailles.” In summing up Party policy, Stalin distinguished between Serbian “nationalism” and the nationalism of the “subjugated people,” such as the Croats and the Albanians. The Party’s enemy, he declared, was the ruling class of Serbia. All other nationalists should be regarded as Communism’s natural allies in the revolutionary struggle against the king and government of Yugoslavia.
Tito, who became General Secretary in the thirties, faithfully followed and implemented the instructions of the Comintern, even supporting the Ustasha movement in Croatia and the Albanian separatists in Kosovo. If we are to understand the Kosovo crisis today, we must remember the activities of the Communist Party in the first Yugoslavia. Ironically, those who had worked to destroy the first Yugoslavia (1918-41) were to become the builders of the second Communist Yugoslavia (1945-91), which was organized ostensibly on federalist principles, but under the slogan of “brotherhood and unity.” In our days, the heirs of Tito’s Partisans have been carving their own national ethnic states out of this multi-ethnic country.
The royal government in Belgrade tried to redress the balance in Kosovo, from which thousands of Serbs had been expelled over the years by Albanian pressure under Turkish and Austrian occupation. Special inducements were offered to Serbian settlers who would recolonize Kosovo. This devastated land with its blasted infrastructure was not regarded as desirable farmland, but there was some modest resettlement. In the inter-war period, the medieval churches with their monasteries were repaired, and new churches were built. Kosovo’s historic role as the cradle of the Serbian state, its epic poetry and national memory was enshrined.
Germany invaded and vanquished Yugoslavia in April 1941, two months before invading the USSR. Taking exceptional revenge on Yugoslavia for its defiance, the Nazis and their allies split the country up into occupied zones under the control of Germans, Italians, Hungarians and Bulgarians. Local fascists in Croatia, the Ustasha, installed a particularly cruel regime. They aimed to eliminate the substantial Serbian minority either by death, conversion or expulsion. In the first years of the occupation, an estimated 500,000 people, including Jews and gypsies, were killed outright in the “Independent Croatian State.” The overwhelming majority were Orthodox Serbs.
The church suffered with its people. Of 577 Serbian priests who had served in the territory now under Ustasha terror, 217 were killed and 334 were “cleansed” to Serbia. Of the ruling bishops in seven Orthodox dioceses in this region, three were murdered, three expelled to Serbia, and one detained in an Italian prison camp. The rest of the country was also subjected to severe conditions. The Patriarch and the most outstanding Bishop, Nicholai Velimirovich, were imprisoned in Dachau.
During the Axis occupation, Kosovo came under Italian control at first, but with the fall of Italian Fascism in 1943 Germans replaced the Italians. The Albanians assisted the Germans in their war effort. They formed the Skanderbeg Division, an SS unit of Albanian volunteers, which carried out punitive raids on the non-Albanian population. The Prizren League, which had gone underground, was once again activated, pursuing its goal of an ethnically pure Kosovo. Under the aegis of the occupiers, the League terrorized the Serbs, driving them out. As thousands of them were being forced out of Kosovo, the Germans blocked the roads to prevent an even greater number of refugees flowing into Serbia. They feared that this exodus would increase the guerillas opposing them in Serbia proper.
At the end of the war, Tito’s Partisans occupied Kosovo, but had to fight the entrenched Albanians. Thousands of Albanians left for Turkey. Tito was only partly successful in controlling the Kosovo separatists, whom he had nurtured in the pre-war period. The expelled Serbs appealed to the authorities to return to their homes in Kosovo, but the government refused to let them go back. A historian has estimated that Kosovo has been “ethnically cleansed” six times in the twentieth century; and three of these cleansings have been of thousands of Serbs.
Tito was credited in the world at large with maintaining outward peace. The official policy was “brotherhood and unity.” In actuality profound national tensions remained. After what had been essentially a civil war, the winner took revenge on the losers. There was no political freedom to express grievances or to right injustice. The Party controlled the justice system, and there was no independent press to point out shortcomings or corruption. No one confronted the recent past in order to accelerate the process of healing. The wartime and post-war mass killings, including those of Tito’s rule, were kept in “deep freeze” for forty-five years. When the system of repression broke down after Tito’s death the ethnic groups began exposing their many grievances as they came out of “cold storage.” Each ethnic group felt it had been humiliated under the Communist system and complained that it had suffered more than others.
Without transforming the oppressive system of governance, the ethnic leaders now on stage exacerbated tensions by reviving ethnic hatreds. Raised and educated in the school of international Communism, overnight they became exclusive nationalists preaching civil war and denying human rights to minorities in the regions where their ethnic group was in control. In order to create “pure” ethnic states, they helped release nationalistic passions. Each national group used ethnic cleansing and committed atrocities against minorities. The term “ethnic cleansing,” we should note, was not coined by Radovan Karadzic during the Bosnian Civil War (1992-5) but by Victor Gutic, the Ustasha leader of Banja Luka during World War II, who openly called for “ciscenije,” “cleansing” of the Serbian population under his reign of terror.
Tito’s death in 1980 marked the end of deep freeze and the beginning of unrest, first of all in Kosovo. The Western press reported that in Pristina “there have been almost weekly incidents of rape, arson, pillage and industrial sabotage, most seemingly designed to drive Kosovo’s remaining indigenous Slavs out of the province.” This led to another surge of refugees into Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic, a minor Communist functionary, used the Kosovo crisis to rise to power. In 1989 he revoked the Kosovo autonomy granted in the Yugoslav constitution of 1974, an abrupt reversal of previous policy. The Serb minority obtained rights to state services at the expense of the Albanians, many of whom were forced out of their jobs as Serbs assumed their positions. A robust police force arrived to keep Kosovo under control. In this way Milosevic set the stage for the disaster of 1999.
What was happening in Kosovo was of particular concern to the Serbian Church. The province, with its numerous churches, medieval monasteries and cultural monuments had been its “holy ground,” its Jerusalem. Milosevic aimed to punish the Albanians who had resisted his authority. He retained the Communist policy of weakening the Orthodox Church by disrupting its unity, keeping it isolated from society. The official picture of the church was that it was an outdated institution of a bygone era. But the persecuted church, with the modification of totalitarian rule, came out of “cold storage” and assumed a position highly critical of state policies. It had not performed this role previously throughout the Communist era. Now it stepped beyond purely confessional matters to address large social and national concerns.
With several public pronouncements, church leaders pleaded with ethnic leaders to stop the bloody civil wars, which were suicidal madness for Serbs in particular. Due to the migrations throughout the centuries, starting with their defeat in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbs had spread further than any other ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia. Almost a third of them lived outside the republic of Serbia proper. With the formation of ethnic states, Serbs became unprotected minorities overnight. The state of Croatia is a case in point. Serbs had settled in the Krajina region over four centuries ago. By making the Republic of Croatia “the national state of the Croatian people,” the new constitution reduced the six hundred thousand Serbs living there to an unprotected minority. Now they were no longer citizens of Yugoslavia, but second-class citizens who must apply for permits to stay in their native land.
From the start of the civil war, the church stood in defense of human rights for the persecuted minorities and raised its voice against the folly of the ethnic leaders, particularly against the government of Milosevic in Belgrade. In May 1992, The Council of Bishops of the Serbian church issued a proclamation, confronting the years of forced silence. It first reminded the secular authorities and the faithful that the church had been the victim both of the Nazi occupation and Communist terror. The post-war leaders had written their own history of the war, lying about their role as well as about the activities and intentions of their opponents. After referring to the recent past, the Council of Bishops in this document turned to the activities of the ruling party in Serbia under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic. For the first time it criticized the neo-Communist system now installed in Serbia. Now styled the “Socialist” Party, the rulers retained the structure and organs of the Communist system. The bishops recognized that there was now a multiparty system in Serbia and some freedom of expression but warned that in reality there has been no democratic development and sharing of responsibility. The Serbian ruling party still exercises restraints on church activities and influence, and by excluding it from the schools does not allow it to assume the place it claims in Serbian society.
The council attributed the present conflict, starting with Slovenia and leading to Croatia and Bosnia, to fifty years of ideological poisoning of all ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia. Tito’s generals and their successors have fought against each other in all the ethnic armies of this conflict. They all used the same methods to eliminate their opponents. Without exception the leaders of the ethnic groups involved in the civil war must be condemned, regardless of which side they belonged to. Blame should be distributed equally. The bishops worried that the Western powers, especially the United States, were reducing their condemnation exclusively to the Serbs. Throughout the nineties Patriarch Pavle has insisted on individual responsibility for crimes and atrocities committed on all sides. We may note that the church under his leadership has more consistently criticized Milosevic and his regime than the Western leaders, who shifted their approach to him, depending on his usefulness to them. It is true that some individual church hierarchs have shown a friendly attitude toward Milosevic, but the church as an institution under Patriarch Pavle has consistently criticized him.
The tensions and accusations between the Church and the governing authorities increased throughout the nineties. Church leaders, including Patriarch Pavle, encouraged the peaceful demonstrations of the winter of 1996-7, provoked by the result of local elections that the regime refused to accept. The Assembly of Bishops denounced the distortion of voting results and the suppression of political and religious freedom. In a public announcement, the church stressed that the people’s will and dignity must be accepted. It also reproached the state for reducing the Serbian people to beggars, “alienating us from the rest of the world.”
The church also engaged in a persistent struggle with the Socialist government over church property, which had been expropriated by Tito’s regime. The parliament had enacted a law returning church property, but Milosevic, president of Serbia at the time, had never signed it. Property claimed by the church, such as a memorial building donated to the church several centuries before, was even offered for sale by the state.
After the Dayton peace accords in 1995, terminating the civil war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, the attention of the world turned to Kosovo. Dayton had ignored the problems of Kosovo, where the Albanian majority claimed independence. As their complaints were not addressed, the extremist leaders of the Kosovars turned from the policy of passive resistance of their moderate leadership to guerilla tactics and violent acts against the Serbian population. The Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), successor to the Prizren League, was formed. Their activities prompted the State Department to label them a “terrorist group” in February 1998. A year later, however, the Western powers invited the KLA to represent Kosovo at Rambouillet.
In August 1997, the church assembly under the able and courageous leadership of Bishop Artemije of the Raska-Prizren Diocese convened in Prizren. It criticized the activities of the Serbian special forces as well as the Albanian KLA. As for the KLA aim of independence for Kosovo, they warned that this “would immediately produce large scale instability in the whole region, resulting in a disastrous multiethnic war.” The church urged that ethnic Albanians try to find a satisfactory status in a “democratic Serbian state.” They recognized that this ideal was far from the Milosevic regime.
By 1998 the conflict was in full force. Church spokesmen repeatedly criticized the excessive use of force by the Milosevic police and paramilitaries in Kosovo but also denounced the KLA, which had started murdering Serbian policemen and ethnic Albanians who they thought were cooperating with Serbian authorities. They strongly condemned the role of the KLA in abducting civilians. Three months before bombing started the KLA clearly had already declared war on the Serbs in Kosovo.
In February 1999 the international community called a meeting in Rambouillet, outside Paris, to stop the conflict. The negotiators were dealing with the self-appointed KLA leaders and representatives sent by Milosevic. As a spokesman of the Patriarch, or even as an observer, Bishop Artemije tried to reach the negotiators. He was determined to present the viewpoint of the local Serbian population and the church in this ecclesiastical center, but was rebuffed by Milosevic and by the diplomats. The church delegation got as far as Paris, where it was received by a staff member of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Here they presented a plan for the cantonization of Kosovo, based on respect for ethnic distribution and cultural heritage. They proposed that five cantons be reserved for the mixed population of Serbs, Slavic Moslems and others. The great majority of the cantons would be allotted to Albanians where they were a distinct majority. The multiethnic towns could serve as bridges connecting the Serbian and Albanian cantons into a whole. If this plan had been realized, Kosovars and Kosovci might have been spared much suffering.
The pronouncements and interference of Patriarch Pavle and Bishop Artemije of Prizren in the negotiations enraged Milosevic. He regarded this as treasonous and dismissed them. When Patriarch Pavle went with Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow, to call on Milosevic during the NATO bombing, the Serbian leader “stood demonstratively with his back turned to Patriarch Pavle.”
What made the Rambouillet plan unacceptable to the Serbian delegation was not the demand that Kosovo’s autonomy be restored, but a secret codicil giving NATO representatives the right to free access to any part of Yugoslavia, to occupy the whole country. No national leader could have accepted such a capitulation, and in the agreement terminating hostilities on June 10, 1999, this demand was rescinded. The codicil recalls the Austrian ultimatum in 1914, demanding access to Serbian institutions and leading to the outbreak of World War. After the failure to procure Serbian assent, the bombing of Kosovo by NATO began almost immediately.
The “precision bombing” led to unintended consequences, which we will not detail. We may note that the United States and its allies carefully timed the attack on Iraq to avoid Ramadan, the Islamic holy season, so as not to offend the Muslims. However, there was no such sensitivity here; the bombers were out full force on both Western and Orthodox Easter. In a challenging article, “Robin Cook’s Wasteland,” Simon Jenkins concludes that Yugoslavia was the victim of two mistakes, “one by its own rulers, the other by NATO.” After the bombing “NATO merely shrugged and turned elsewhere. The Danube ‘blocked for twenty years’? Who cares?”
Disaster did not end with the termination of bombing on June 10 and the arrival of NATO occupying troops. It was soon clear that the returning Albanian refugees claimed the whole territory for themselves, driving out and killing the local population. The KLA went beyond revenge killings to trying to eliminate all traces of Serbian culture in the region by systematically looting, bombing and burning churches and monasteries. Patriarch Pavle, who before his selection as patriarch in 1991 had been Bishop of Kosovo for thirty-four years, warned: “These acts of vandalism cannot be called acts of individual and blind revenge. It is becoming increasingly evident that there is a systematic strategy in the background to annihilate once and for all traces of Serb and Christian culture in Kosovo.” From June to December 1999 some eighty Orthodox churches had been destroyed.
The most ancient of the churches razed include:
The 14th century Holy Trinity Monastery, near Suva Reka, looted, set on fire and finally destroyed by explosives.
14th century St. Cosma and Damian Monastery, Zociste (with frescoes). Monastic quarters looted and set on fire in June. Church destroyed by explosives Sept. 21.
Church of the Dormition, Suva Reka,, built in 1315, destroyed by explosives. Regarded as one of the most beautiful examples of Byzantine style in Kosovo.
Monastery of St. Mark, Korisa (near Prizren), 1467, vandalized and set on fire.
Monastery of Archangel Gabriel in Binac, 14th century with frescoes, set on fire and almost completely demolished.
Monastery of St. Joanikije, Devic, built around 1440, looted and vandalized, marble tomb of the saint desecrated.
Church of the Dormition, dedicated to St. King Uros, Gornje Nerodimlje, 14th century, restored in 1996, destroyed by explosives.
Holy Archangels Monastery (14th century, restored in 17th century), Gornje Nerodimlje, torched and destroyed by explosives, cemetery ruined. The famous “pine of the Emperor Dusan,” originating from the 14th century, cut down and burnt.
Church of St. Nicholas, Donje Nerodimlje, 14th c., restored 1983, torched and destroyed by explosives.
Cemetery Church of St. Stephen, Donje Nerodimlje, 14th c., restored in 1996, torched and destroyed by explosives.
Monastery Church of the Presentation, Dolac. 14th c., frescoed. Vandalized, torched, altar table destroyed. Later the church was completely destroyed by explosives.
Churches and monasteries that had withstood five centuries of Ottoman rule have been destroyed in a few months.
At present the monastery churches of Gracanica, Pec and Decani have survived. They have received appreciative attention by discriminating observers. Rebecca West, for example, called Gracanica “as religious a building as Chartres Cathedral. The thought and feeling behind it were as complete. There is in these frescoes, as in the parent works of Byzantium, the height of accomplishment.” These three treasures are now protected by a ring of NATO tanks and sandbags, under twenty-four hour guard. Of the 25,000 Serbs who lived in Pec, none now remain. The Serbs in Kosovo now live in ghettoes under KFOR protection. Finally, and ironically, the monument to the Battle of Kosovo in Kosovo Polje, where Serb and Albanian stood side by side to resist Turkish conquest in 1389, has been leveled and destroyed. History has come full circle.
In conclusion. The future of a multi-ethnic Kosovo is dubious. NATO has yet to prevent “ethnic cleansing in reverse” and the further destruction of the medieval religious and cultural monuments. Over a thousand churches, monasteries and other religious sites witness to the Serbian Orthodox involvement in the region over centuries. As Belgrade’s policy of cleansing the Albanians from Kosovo was brutal and misguided, so are the revenge killings and appropriation of non-Albanian property, driving thousands out of the province into Serbia. This flood has swelled the refugee population already there from Bosnia and Croatia to 800,000.
The historian Timothy Ash concluded from a recent visit to the province that Kosovo today is an “almighty mess.” Yet he reported one hopeful sign, that the thirst for revenge sickens “many among the older generation of Kosovars, who still have preserved memories of peaceful coexistence with the Serbs.” We must make use of the persistence of memory before it entirely disappears.
Can religious leaders on opposing sides bring hope to the conflict? About a week before the bombing raids started in March 1999, representatives of the Serbian Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Islamic communities, meeting in Vienna, appealed to the Western political leaders gathered at Rambouillet to find a way to a peaceful and just solution. They offered help to implement an agreement that would avoid intensification of the Kosovo conflict, and warned: “Peace has to be promoted from the top down, but it grows and is nurtured from the bottom up.” Their appeal was rebuffed at Rambouillet, but the occupation authorities now seem more receptive to their help. They are resuming the interrupted contacts and seek to restore trust among the people of Kosovo in order to promote the common good. Admittedly, Christian and Muslim leaders are increasingly marginalized in their secularized societies.
Suffering such as the people of Kosovo are enduring calls out for a search for meaning. Meaningless suffering is truly unbearable. Rebecca West, in that epic of our own time, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, describes a Montenegrin woman she met while walking in the high mountains. The woman had lost her husband, son and daughter during World War I. “I am walking about to try to understand why all this happened,” she went on. “If I had to live, why should my life have been like this?” The author experienced a shock of revelation. “She was the answer to my doubts,” wrote Rebecca West. “She took her destiny not as the beasts take it, nor as the plants and trees; she not only suffered it, she examined it. As the sword swept down on her through the darkness she threw out her hand and caught the blade as it fell, not caring if she cut her fingers, so long as she could question its substance, where it had been forged, and who was the wielder” (p. 1012). Deeply and traditionally Christian, this representative of an earlier generation transmits the religious culture as truly as the monuments and the poetry of medieval Kosovo. The question remains whether this treasure of traditional faith can still give meaning to the sufferers of Kosovo today.
 During World War I, when the British were allied with Serbia, the British attitude toward this epic tradition differed sharply from what we found during the recent Kosovo war. R.W.Seton-Watson, the renowned British historian, published his translation of “The Mother of the Jugovici.” He was an organizer of the Kosovo Day Celebration in London in 1916, when the Serbian army had been completely driven out of its homeland. In 1917 G.K.Chesterton and others published a Kosovo Anthology, with English translations from the Kosovo cycle. See Muriel Heppell, “British Historians and Serbian History,” South Slav Journal, vol. 18, No. 1-2 1997, pp. 50f.
 Dr. Oliver Sack’s story “Cold Storage” has been used as a metaphor for the cold and post-Cold War periods in Yugoslavia. See our essay “Bosnia; History and Religion” in New Perspectives on Historical Theology (Essays in Memory of John Meyendorff), B. Nassif, ed., W.B.Eerdmans, 1996, pp. 92-3.