The Silent Persecution of Christians in Kosovo
Arnaud Gouillon, a Christian humanitarian and newly appointed minister by the Serbian government, discusses the plight of the Christian Serb communities in Kosovo and why their disappearance from that region would be a terrible signal for all Christendom.
The Christian Serbs of Kosovo have been undergoing severe and almost systematic persecutions since the 1990s within the context of the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001), especially since the Kosovo War in 1999.
Located at the center of the Balkans in southeastern Europe and bordered by Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia, Kosovo has long been a disputed territory, for ethnic, religious and cultural reasons.
When Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, 100,000 to 150,000 Serbs — most of whom are Orthodox Christians — chose to remain on this land, which they consider to be the birthplace of their culture and faith, despite the harsh economic context there and the difficult coexistence with the Muslim Albanian majority (representing 90% of the population).
Christians, who were a majority on this territory for centuries, now represent only about 6% of the whole population. Yet this land still concentrates an impressive part of the Orthodox heritage, as well as Serbia’s most ancient monasteries.
While the underreported persecutions against Kosovo’s Christian minority have occurred over the past 20 years since Serbia lost control of the territory, the violence against them reached its peak with the March 2004 pogroms, during which 935 homes and some 30 Orthodox churches and monasteries were burned, leaving approximately 4,000 Serbs displaced.
It is in this context that Arnaud Gouillon, a French citizen age 19 at that time, decided to found the NGO “Solidarité Kosovo” (Solidarity Kosovo), in order to assist the families living in Christian enclaves there. With the support of more than 12,000 donors from across France, the association has provided schooling for hundreds of Kosovar children over the years, as well as supplying 400 tons of food and clothes to Christian villages, which have a very restricted access to the job market and to public services because of the sensitive political context.
Gouillon’s untiring commitment in favor of the Christian Serbs of Kosovo has earned him remarkable renown among the Serbian population and religious authorities. Indeed, the national press ranked him among Serbia’s 20 most popular people in 2015, alongside famous tennis player Novak Djokovic. He was also the recipient of several prestigious national distinctions, including the Order of St. Sava, the highest distinction of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which he received from Patriarch Irenaeus in 2018. Now 34 years old and a naturalized Serb since 2015, he was recently appointed secretary of state in charge of the diaspora in the Serbian government last November.
While discussing his singular path in this interview with the Register, Gouillon highlighted the stakes of the survival of this Christian presence in Kosovo. Their disappearance from such a historic land would be unprecedented in the history of the evangelization of Europe.
Why did you found Solidarité Kosovo in 2004, and what is the significance of the organization in the region today?
I saw the images of the anti-Christian pogroms carried out by Albanian extremists against the Serb populations of Kosovo on the television and was terribly moved by that at that time. Churches and villages were burning. ... It was horrible — all the more so because Kosovo, which is today predominantly Albanian and Muslim, is the historic cradle of Serbia and has one of the largest concentrations of Christian religious buildings in Europe. So, I decided to act, instead of remaining powerless. I was 19 years old at the time. Together with my brother and a few friends, we organized a Christmas convoy to bring toys to the children there. Sixteen years later, Solidarité Kosovo is the first humanitarian actor in the region. We fund long-term projects, to enable the inhabitants of the Serbian enclaves to survive in autarky [economic independence or self-sufficiency] (through farms, schools ...), and we have been maintaining the symbolic tradition of the Christmas convoy!
Some newspapers reported that you were banned from entering Kosovo in 2018, with no official reason. Did you find out why, eventually?
I never knew it officially. Unofficially, it is probably because my humanitarian actions in the service of an oppressed minority was disturbing for some people. Even today, I do not have diplomatic immunity, because most Serbian officials are banned from staying in Kosovo!
Why did you organize a new campaign to help the Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija last March?
It was an emergency aid meant to deal with the consequences of COVID-19. Beyond the disease itself, the lockdown has had destructive effects. Economically, the poorest have been particularly affected because of job losses, the lack of social assistance. ... With the arrival of spring, March is also the month when agricultural worksites are launched. There, everything was paralyzed. Thus, in addition to the health crisis, we were at risk of a serious food crisis.
For the Serbs of Kosovo, who were already isolated in their enclaves all year-round, the lockdown has had a very difficult moral impact: It was like a double confinement!
And on the medical level, it should be known that Serbian Christians are excluded from the health system of Kosovo. They can only go to a Serbian hospital, in the north of the province, or to another, in the south, where there are only two respirators. For all these reasons, it was vital to trigger an emergency operation.
What is the situation of Christians in Kosovo today?
Extremely difficult. The Serbs, who were the original population of Kosovo, have undergone a slow ethnic cleansing that has been accelerating since the war of 1999.
Today there are just over 100,000 of them. They live in enclaves (in a street, a neighborhood, a village ...) which are open-air prisons from which they cannot get out without risking a skirmish. They are regularly attacked, beaten, looted and pushed to leave. They live in great poverty; they are systematically discriminated against; their schools are abandoned. They are condemned to a form of autarky. The objective of many radical Islamists is to eradicate the Serbian and Christian presence in Kosovo; hence, the importance of ensuring their autonomy and security.
I remember a couple who, after the third burglary they underwent, found a box of rat poison on the kitchen table. That was the last warning.
You report that there is still silent ethnic cleansing of Serbs in the region. Do you think that this hostility is still fundamentally religious, after the anti-Christian pogroms of 2004?
In Kosovo, ethnic and religious issues are mixed. There is thus a general hatred of the Slavs that affects the Serbs, but also the Gorani people, who are Muslim, in the south of Kosovo. Solidarité Kosovo also provides support to them.
In addition, there have been anti-Christian pogroms and the targeted destruction of 150 churches or monasteries in the last 20 years. In particular, we support the monastery of Visoki Decani, which is regularly targeted by Islamist terrorists but also by Kosovar Albanian media and politicians. It was attacked with a rocket launcher and defiled by a tag saying “The Caliphate is coming.” In 2016, the NATO forces stopped four jihadists armed with Kalashnikovs in front of the monastery’s gate. They were filmed by the surveillance cameras we have equipped the monastery with. We also built a security airlock, made of traditional stone, with iron gates. We still hope for the arrival, one day or another, of a peaceful cohabitation, because the majority of Albanians are moderate. But extremists are very powerful, and international condemnation of their abuses is very rare.
In 2017, you participated in the documentary Kosovo, une chrétienté en péril (“Kosovo, a Christianity in Danger”). What does this Christian presence in the region represent? What would be the consequences of its disappearance?
For the first time since the evangelization of our continent, Christians would disappear from a European land. This is unprecedented — a terrible sign for European civilization, which must not happen.
Culturally, the destruction of the Serbian and Orthodox heritage of Kosovo, classified as a UNESCO heritage site, would be an inestimable loss for humanity, because it is universal, as were the Buddhas of Bamiyan or the remains of Palmyra.
What are your relations with the Orthodox religious authorities in the region?
Excellent. Most of our projects are carried out in partnership with the Diocese of Kosovo and Metohija. I received the Order of St. Sava, the highest distinction of the Serbian Orthodox Church, from the hands of Patriarch Irenaeus. I was very affected by his death this year because I knew and respected him.
Where does your special affection for Serbia come from?
The old Franco-Serbian friendship, which dates back to the 1870s [following the Franco-Prussian war), is very much alive in my family. For both my grandfather and father, it was strengthened with the two world wars. Personally, when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, I saw it as an injustice. Seeing this country alone against all revolted me. I wanted to be on the side of the weak who are attacked in their own land, against the powerful who martyred and humiliated a people. Of course, back then, I did not imagine that, later, I would live in Serbia, obtain citizenship and be appointed to a high position by the government.
What does this appointment to the Serbian government mean to you? What do you hope to accomplish during your term of office?
It is, of course, a great distinction for me, but it is above all a recognition for all those who have helped Solidarité Kosovo for the past 16 years. I am particularly thinking of a retired man who has been saving on his cigarettes to make donations to people poorer than him; of the volunteers who have been accompanying me on dangerous roads and who commit themselves without counting the cost; of all the Serbs of Kosovo who found the strength to survive, to bear witness despite persecution. My nomination by the government truly symbolizes the recognition of this collective effort. I would have done nothing without them.
Until now, my energy has been focused on humanitarian work. Today, I can put myself at the service of all Serbs in the diaspora, working to build bridges, between their country of origin and their host countries. Serbs are hardworking, intelligent and respectful: I want to help them express their full potential wherever they are, anywhere in the world.