The 20th century seems destined to end as it began: with a powder-keg of fighting exploding in the Balkans. Pope John Paul II has pledged to do all in his power to prevent that from happening.
It will be difficult. Fighting in Kosovo is nothing new. Similar oppression of ethnic Albanians by occupying forces raged there in 1912, helping to spark World War I. When communists took over, they merely centralized the violence. They also inspired the creation of a new kind of research institute: the kind that catalogues human rights abuses. In one of its earliest reports, for instance, the Albanian Cultural Institute documented a 1944 incident in which Franciscan Father Alexander Luli was captured by Marxist guerrillas. “His captors cut Luli's throat and dumped him in an unmarked grave in Kosovo,” it said.
Furthermore, in these days at the end of the millennium, when the Church is looking back at her history, it is appropriate to note that Kosovo has been a hot spot, in one way or another, since Christianity began.
In Kosovo, 90% of the population is Albanian, of whom 10% are Catholic, 20% Orthodox, and 70% Muslim. But it was not always that way.
The land's history is significantly Christian. St. Paul reports evangelizing “Illyricum,” present day Albania, across Kosovo's border to the west. St. Jerome was “ethnically Albanian” along with two popes and some 588 saints and beatified martyrs. St. Francis of Assisi established one of his first religious communities in the region, the beginning of a centuries-long Franciscan presence there.
In the 15th century, when Ottoman Turks threatened to take the region — a key borderland territory to the Western world — Albanians banded together under the great leader Skenderbeg, who almost single-handedly turned back the invaders, and received the commendation of two popes for his efforts.
After he died, the Turks succeeded. The country became progressively more Muslim, but the Catholics there have always strongly influenced the development of its culture. Priests and religious first codified and collected the Albanian language, published its folk tales, and documented its music.
The deep Christian history of the land and its Muslim majority created an unusual situation in Albania, where Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox thrived side by side, and even honored each other's feast days. And its tribal, harsh ways — including the strict vendetta systems and blood vows that make its terrorism intractable — formed a people of strong, tenacious character.
When married to faith, the Albanian character has produced the likes of Mother Teresa. When indifferent or antagonistic to the faith, it has produced Slobodan Milosevic.
So, when Pope John Paul II called for peace in the area, and said that the “conflict in Yugoslavia prompts deep concern both for the victims and for the consequences it can have on Europe and the world,” his words cannot be taken lightly.
Neither can his actions. An unexpected private audience of Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro had with the Pope capped the first week of the NATO bombings, a week in which the Vatican scrambled to do all it could to end the conflict.
Scalfaro's office said he dined with the Holy Father to “discuss the absolute need to accelerate diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict taking place in the Yugoslavian Federation.”
That meeting took place as the Italian government was urging the conflicting parties to return to the negotiating table. Next, Cardinal Angelo Sodano met with the ambassadors of the NATO states and members of the U.N. Security Council to seek more avenues of peace.
The Holy Father presciently demanded peace in the reason, before the rest of the world witnessed the toll in human suffering in the aggression, especially the 60,000 Kosovan Albanian Catholics fleeing Serb aggressors and dodging “friendly” fire on Easter weekend. John Paul knows the history of the Balkans well, and its ability to produce a Milosevic — or a Mother Teresa.
“The time to make peace is always,” he said in a recent Angelus message. Particularly when a place like Kosovo is at stake.