WASHINGTON—A Catholic bishop in Kosovo said he welcomed the arrival of NATO peacekeeping troops and would continue to promote understanding among people in the region.
Meanwhile, the Serbian Orthodox bishops have a called on Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic and his government to resign.
“Now that NATO troops are here we are released, and I'm expecting that the situation we have today is going to improve even more,” said Auxiliary Bishop Marko Sopi of Skopje-Prizren, through a translator in a June 16 telephone interview from the city of Prizren in southern Kosovo.
Skopje is across the border in Macedonia.
“We have here so many different faiths — Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and different nationalities — Albanian, Serbian, Croatian … I will try to bring them together and improve understanding among them,” Bishop Sopi said.
“This is the first time I can communicate with anyone by telephone” since the NATO bombing began in late March, Bishop Sopi said. He spoke over a cellular phone because phone lines to the area were cut by Serbian forces early in the conflict.
Bishop Sopi said he had only learned of the peace agreement through the media.
“I expect that it will be implemented with time. We hope and we pray for that,” he said.
Bishop Sopi is responsible for ethnic Albanian Catholics in Macedonia and southern Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. He said he remained in Prizren throughout the conflict, occasionally visiting priests, nuns and lay people at local parishes.
He said. “Personally, my life was never in danger. But for some of the priests from the different parishes, yes.”
Bishop Sopi said during the conflict he had urged the people “to help each other if they had extra food or could take someone into their house. But my biggest prayer was for peace and that peace would come as soon as possible.”
“I can say that more people attended Mass during that time than during the normal times,” he said.
“All the church personnel in different parishes, all of them stayed. None of them left during this time. They were all very busy … caring for the elderly and sick, taking care of people who stayed,” he added.
At one parish, he said, two priests along with members of the Sisters of St. Vincent and the Missionaries of Charity “were working all the time, night and day with the elderly and the sick people.”
In a move that coincided with arrival of NATO's forces in Kosovo, the Serbian Orthodox Church demanded the resignation of President Milosevic at a June 15 meeting of the Church's synod. The bishops called for the change in leadership “in the interest and the salvation of the people, so that new officials, acceptable at home and abroad, can assume responsibility for … ‘national salvation.’”
The bishops’ appeal gained wide coverage in the Western media within hours of its release, but was not immediately reported by Serbia's state-controlled media.
The bishops expressed concern that the withdrawal of Serb troops would leave Serbian Orthodox holy sites — including the historical seat of Serbian Orthodox patriarchs in Pec, western Kosovo — unprotected, and vulnerable to vandalism by ethnic Albanians.
The bishops appealed to Kosovo Serb civilians — thousands of whom who are fleeing in fear of attacks by ethnic Albanians — “to remain in their homes and not abandon their shrines, sustained by the words of Jesus Christ — the one who endures till the end will be saved.”
For Serbs, several parts of Kosovo are the cradle of their national religious and cultural identity. According to many commentators, Milosevic has exploited Serb attachment to Kosovo to strengthen his power in Yugoslavia over the past decade.
While warning that Yugoslavia's “isolation … on the international scene” could not be overcome as long as the Milosevic government remained in place, the Serbian bishops apparently took issue with the recent indictment of President Milosevic by the U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague for crimes against humanity. “The final justice is with Our Lord, and not in the hands of a court in The Hague,” the statement said.
The Orthodox Church is by far the most important institution in Yugoslavia to demand President Milosevic's resignation. (From combined news services)