National Catholic Register


War Tests Religious Loyalties

BY Jonathan Luxmoore

April 18-24, 1999 Issue | Posted 4/18/99 at 1:00 PM


WARSAW, Poland—When NATO war-planes attacked Yugoslavia on the evening of March 24, one senior Catholic was calmly defiant.

“Whatever happens, I'll be here to the very end, and so will my priests,” Bishop Marko Sopi, who ministers to ethnic Albanian Catholics in the conflict-torn province of Kosovo, told the Register. “All we can do now is pray to God, who is now the only one who can bring back peace.”

The NATO attack was the ultimate denouement in a year of savage clashes, punctuated by abortive talks and deals. Three weeks on, with dozens of targets blitzed from Vojvodina to Montenegro, Bishop Sopi's pledge is still being tested, along with the war's impact on Yugoslavia's complex religious makeup.

At 65,000, Kosovo's small but vibrant Catholic minority made up just 4% of its population in happier times. But it was also unusually vibrant, and played an important role in the culture of the province's Albanian majority.

The minority's future looks uncertain.

Kosovo's 23 Catholic parishes, served by 37 priests and 76 nuns, formally belong to the Skopje-Prizren Diocese, which is now divided by the Yugoslav-Macedonian border.

Up to two dozen Catholics were known to have died in Serb-Albanian fighting between January and March. But that figure is certain to have risen.

The large Catholic parish in the provincial capital of Pristina was reported dispersed by early April, while no one knows the fate of 80 Catholics who sought refuge at their church in the historic northern town of Pec.

Nuns from a Divine Love convent at Binac were driven out by Serb militias, while several Franciscan monks were left unaccounted for when the Yugoslav Army commandeered their monastery at Djakovica.

The Franciscans have seven other houses in Serbia and Montenegro, the two states making up Yugoslavia. Although five Catholic dioceses still formally exist here, up to three-quarters of the Church's half-million members fled during the country's 1990-91 breakup, leaving mostly the poor and elderly.

Last spring, minority churches warned their rights faced curbs under a new religious law being drawn up by the nationalist Radical Party, which provides half the country's Socialist-led coalition government.

There have been no unusual pressures. But the government hasn't even replied to a request for fuller legal rights by Yugoslavia's Catholic Bishops Conference a year ago.

Reconciliatory calls by 67-year-old Archbishop Franc Perko of Belgrade, six of whose 15 parishes are in the capital, have been attacked more often than applauded.

“Catholics are a minority here, and we're naturally afraid about the future — though we've consistently urged peaceful, humanitarian solutions, the forces opposed to dialogue have proved too hard and strong,” the Slovene-born archbishop told the Register. “In reality, Christians can do very little now but pray that a desire for peace will eventually shine in this part of the Balkans.

“No war is just, and only God can pass judgment on the politicians responsible.”

Where churches are concerned, attitudes were hardened by the NATO strikes.

Support for Milosevic

The predominant Serbian Ortho/dox Church, whose key posts are nationalist-dominated, has generally backed President Slobodan Milosevic.

Yugoslav TV showed pictures of a 14th-century UNESCO-protected Orthodox monastery at Gracanica in Kosovo, which it claimed was badly damaged by NATO shelling. It also showed Patriarch Pavle, whose formal see is in Kosovo, visiting a bomb-damaged monastery at Rakovica in Belgrade.

Though Orthodox bishops have reported a 40% drop in church attendance since war started, they've naturally rallied to the national cause.

Since fellow-Orthodox abroad have lent support too, there, on March 24, a top-level Russian Orthodox delegation, headed by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk, canceled Vatican talks, explaining it was impossible to “step on land from which bombers were launched to strike Serbia.”

In a letter to world leaders, Patriarch Aleksi II branded the attack a “dangerous precedent” with “unimaginable political and military consequences.”

“More than 10 countries have hit one nation, destroying not just military but also purely civilian targets, and delivering a shattering blow to the peace structure which has protected Europe for over 50 years,” the patriarch added.

“History teaches you cannot deprive a sovereign nation of its history, holy places and right to self-determination,” he continued. “If Western nations fail to understand this, history's judgment will be irreversible.”

Meanwhile, the head of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Archbishop Christodoulos, sent a delegation of hierarchs to Belgrade, and accentuated the war's religious dimension by denouncing NATO's “bloody war against Orthodox believers.”

Romania's Orthodox Church also insisted Kosovo “must continue to belong to Serbia,” and urged its Serbian Orthodox neighbors to withstand a war “whose main victims are its sons and land.”

Some Romanians went even further. The Orthodox Archdiocese of Alba Iulia condemned NATO's “savage aggression,” while the Romanian Orthodox Students Association staged a special prayer meeting.

“We witness in bewilderment this ‘lesson in democracy'being taught with weapons by the U.S., a master of world democracy,” the student's March 31 statement read. “NATO, the guarantor of world security, peace and prosperity, offers us bombs, debris, refugees and guns. The protector and promoter of human rights avoids a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ with blood and despair.”

Could the threatened interchurch rift be modified by the Vatican's peace initiatives?

Vatican Activity

When airstrikes started, Pope John Paul II warned of a “conflict wounding all Europe,” and offered a four-point plan for suspending hostilities and restarting negotiations. This relied heavily of Orthodox contacts.

The Vatican's Spanish nuncio, Archbishop Santos Abril Castello, stayed at his Belgrade post as a sign of neutrality, and promised to “knock on all doors” during talks with Yugoslav government and Orthodox Church leaders.

A message from Patriarch Pavle was delivered by Russian ex-premier Yegor Gaidar to the Pope, who dispatched his secretary for state relations, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, to Belgrade on April

1. Besides meeting Milosevic, Archbishop Tauran said he held “long and important” talks with Patriarch Pavle.

Although Milosevic ignored the Pope's calls to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and NATO rejected his appeal for an Easter cease-fire, the Vatican's burst of activity could still yield results.

The Russian Orthodox Church's governing Holy Synod endorsed the cease-fire idea, and insisted it was ready to work with Catholics to achieve a “lasting and just peace.”

“Kosovo remains the Serb nation's integral, ancestral sanctuary,” the synod noted in a statement. “But safety must also be assured for the ethnic Albanians living there, whose national, cultural and religious rights should be independently secured by legitimate representatives of the world community.”

Other Orthodox leaders have since shown signs of modifying their unconditional backing for Yugoslavia.

The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, branded nationalism “heresy” in a March 30 interview with Greece's Eleftherotypia daily, particularly denouncing forms which made use of religion.

Meanwhile, Patriarch Teoctist of Romania warned of the “nefarious consequences” of an Easter-time conflict, deploring the “innocent people mercilessly killed and entire populations seeking refuge.”

In neighboring Bulgaria, where southern church bells have tolled the funeral rhythm on each day of the war, a Holy Synod appeal demanded an end to NATO airstrikes on March 31.

However, a second, on April 7, flatly condemned Milosevic's purging of Kosovo as an “insult to the Orthodox faith,” and denounced attempts to conduct “war and genocide in the name of Christianity.”

Some commentators think the potential for interchurch cooperation will grow rather than fade as the war intensifies.

In Eastern Europe, where currency rates and stock prices fell amid fears of a spreading conflict, Catholic leaders have reiterated the Church's condemnation of force.

Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO on March 12, and were already embroiled in a war two weeks later. Though formally backing the NATO line, their governments are edgy and opinion is divided.

Cardinal Jozef Glemp of Poland has admitted to being “deeply hurt” by the conflict. In nearby Austria, where Serbian Orthodox priests joined protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, the Catholic Bishops Conference called the NATO strikes a “threat to world peace.”

“This isn't a religious war, but there's a permanent risk that religious symbols will be abused for political ends, thus changing its countenance,” the bishops warned March 25."The fact that the escalating violence in Kosovo has not been stopped is shocking proof of how the warnings of Church organizations in the region, endlessly repeated since 1990, have been ignored.”

Meanwhile, even the Serbian Orthodox Church could tire of Milosevic's stance.

“War is justified only when it's a war of defense: Its aim can never be to beat another country and oppress the people living there,” Patriarch Pavle warned March 29. “We need peace. But so do other nations, as well as the followers of other religions and outlooks who live with us.”

A year ago, several Serbian bishops criticized the rejection of international mediation in a Yugoslav referendum. In Kosovo, Orthodox Bishop Artemije Radosavljevic of Rasko-Prizren demanded equal rights for all citizens, and cautioned that Serbs would suffer, just as they did in Croatia and Bosnia, if the Belgrade government's “undemocratic policy” continued.

Artemije was present when Kosovo's Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim religious leaders met in Vienna on March 16 to draw up a 10-point declaration on the need for mutual support and recognition between communities.

Though the war has upstaged their initiative, it also shows the potential for interreligious understanding exists despite everything.

Ironically, it was the Catholic San Egidio Community in Rome which brokered a key Kosovo agreement in 1996, under which the Yugoslav regime pledged to allow the reopening of Albanian schools and associations, as a partial substitute for the provincial autonomy it had revoked in 1989.

It was the regime's failure to honor even that which spurred the resort to arms by Kosovo's Liberation Army, the UCK, in the latest violent twist in the region's battle-ravaged history.

Just what the outcome will be for Kosovo's 61-year-old Catholic bishop, Marko Sopi, is anyone's guess.

On March 29, NATO warplanes flew over Prizren, where the ethnic Albanian bishop is based, and Serb paramilitaries entered the quiet southern town. More than 20,000 Prizren refugees fled to Albania in the days that followed, and Catholic parish buildings were reported ablaze.

Having done everything to avoid being drawn into the conflict, the bishop and his beleaguered priests face a tough challenge — how to support all efforts at peace, while also backing the just demands of their people.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.