Albanian-Serb Tensions Rise as Kosovo Church Appeals for Mutual Trust

WARSAW, Poland—Few Catholic priests would relish the job of Father Chan Zefi. After studying in Rome, the ethnic Albanian priest returned to his native Kosovo in 1992 as chancellor of its minority Catholic Church.

Today, with Kosovo's apostolic administrator, Bishop Marko Sopi, frequently preoccupied elsewhere, Father Zefi bears the brunt of the day-to-day burden of sustaining Catholic hopes in the strife-torn Yugoslav province.

These hopes received a boost in mid October, when President Slobodan Milosevic bowed to NATO demands, and promised to scale down military activities.

But the practical implications remain uncertain.

While some of Kosovo's 300,000 refugees have now returned home, many uprooted Catholics are still sleeping in Father Zefi's church at Prizren. And with Catholic aid consignments from abroad still being blocked by the Serb police on the grounds that they could be used by Albanian guerrillas, the local Caritas organization is at a loss.

“The situation has improved a bit, but there's still great tension here,” Father Zefi told the Register. “There has to be a political compromise between Serbs and Albanians. The will of Kosovo's inhabitants has to be respected.”

Under the peace deal, reached Oct. 13 by Milosevic and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke, the Belgrade government must withdraw at least two-thirds of its 25,000 troops as part of a NATO-monitored ceasefire.

But there are doubts whether the deal will last, and whether Milosevic can be trusted.

The Organization on Security and Co-operation in Europe, which helped broker the peace, says most provisions are being implemented. But Kosovo's locally elected president, Ibrahim Ruganov, insists “significant Serb forces” are still in place. That's also been the conclusion of most independent observers.

Meanwhile, the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) has remained active too.

In early 1998, UCK fighters captured a third of Kosovo in a series of strategic attacks, only to lose it again in a Serb counter-offensive in the summer. Despite the reversal, the UCK is determined to fight on.

In 1989, when the break up of Yugoslavia began, the Belgrade government revoked Kosovo's autonomy and reimposed tight Serb control. In 1996 it promised, but failed, to restore cultural and educational freedoms to ethnic Albanians.

Today, exasperated by repression, many Albanians say they'll settle for nothing less than full independence.

Though Serbs make up just 8% of Kosovo's population of 2.2 million, which is at least 90% ethnic Albanian, the province is seen as the heartland of Serb culture.

Yet Albanians have myths of their own. Some say Europe's 5 million Albanians should be united in a single state, rather than dispersed between Yugoslavia, Albania, Macedonia and Greece, as they are today.

“The Albanian army doesn't accept the pact between Milosevic and Holbrooke, so it's uncertain how the situation will evolve,” said Archbishop Franc Perko of Belgrade. “On one side stand the Albanians who refuse to submit to Serb control. On the other stand the Serbs, who've made [it] clear they will stay in Kosovo at any price.”

Before fighting started in early 1998, Kosovo was home to 63,000 Catholics, formally belonging to the Church's Skopje-Prizren diocese. With that diocese now divided by the new Yugoslav-Macedonia border, there are hopes the Pope will soon upgrade Kosovo to a separate diocese. But that could depend on how the Church weathers the current crisis.

Although most of Kosovo's 23 Catholic parishes have been outside the immediate fighting zone, several more remote communities have been dispersed by Serb forces. By late summer, at least half the province's Catholic minority was reported to have fled abroad.

Not everything is entirely gloomy. International pressure was the only reason the cease-fire deal was struck at all; if such pressure is maintained, the prospects for peace could improve.

One promising sign has been provided by Yugoslavia's predominant Serbian Orthodox Church, whose governing synod has called for non-violent solutions in several conciliatory statements.

In one notable instance, monks at Kosovo's Orthodox Decani monastery condemned “ethnic cleansing,” and even opened an Internet home-page to relay information about the plight of the Serb-controlled area's Albanian villagers.

The Orthodox leader responsible for Kosovo, Bishop Artemije Radosavlejvic of Rasko-Prizren, has warned that Kosovo's Serbs would suffer if Milosevic's “undemocratic policy” continues.

Though once viewed as a hard-line nationalist, Bishop Artemije has continued to criticize the lack of equal rights for ethnic Albanians.

Thomas Bremer, a German expert on Serbian Orthodoxy, sees a striking contrast with the militaristic rhetoric which came out of the Belgrade Patriarchate during the wars in nearby Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“Perhaps they've learned a lesson from the painful experiences of recent years — that the rights of other nations must also be safeguarded,” Bremer told the Register. “Unlike in Croatia and Bosnia, it's clear that power is in Serb hands in Kosovo. They can't pretend Serbs face repression by the local authorities, when the Serbs are the local authorities.”

There are voices of resistance in the Orthodox Church as well. While most Orthodox citizens inhabit the cities, controlled by Kosovo's 10,000-strong paramilitary police, at least one Orthodox convent was forcibly closed this summer by UCK guerrillas, while Yugoslav newspapers showed nuns preparing to defend another with guns.

Meanwhile, with the Belgrade synod divided over ecumenical contacts, the conciliatory Serbian Orthodox attitude hasn't extended to Catholics.

When the Pope paid his second visit to Croatia on Oct. 2-4, he appealed for forgiveness and reconciliation to “reoccupy the place of violence and destruction.”

But Bremer thinks this had little impact on Serb attitudes. The controversial beatification of Alojzije Cardinal Stepinac (1898-1961), the German believes, confirmed the prejudices of Serbs, who still see him, despite evidence to the contrary, as an accomplice in wartime anti-Serb atrocities.

Significantly, Cardinal Stepinac's beatification was supported by Croatia's Jewish minority, but opposed by Serbia's — a sign that the divisions affect both societies, not just their principal Churches.

That has also been the experience of Archbishop Perko of Belgrade, who is pleased that the “more moderate” Serbian Orthodox attitude has made it possible to talk, and is relieved the Kosovo conflict hasn't sparked any large-scale anti-Catholic reaction.

But most working-age Catholics fled Archbishop Perko's archdiocese when the Balkan wars started in 1991, leaving mostly poor and elderly relatives behind. Though the archbishop has called repeatedly for reconciliation and coexistence, his statements have been attacked more often than applauded.

“All the media here are in the service of Serb nationalism — and anything which fails to follow the prevailing propaganda is likely to be attacked,” the archbishop explained. “All religious communities have an obligation to help change mentalities and foster an atmosphere of peace. But this is something which will happen very slowly.”

Last spring, minority Churches were warned that their rights could be curbed under a new religious law being drawn up by the nationalist Radical Party, which provides 15 of 39 ministers in Yugoslavia's Socialist-led coalition government.

Though the law hasn't been tabled yet, Catholic priests and nuns are facing visa and citizenship problems, while Church properties confiscated under communist rule have yet to be returned.

In late October, an international delegation of Church leaders visited Yugoslavia in an attempt to arrange a meeting of religious leaders. But although Serbian Orthodox leaders are ready to meet with Catholics, they won't talk with Albanian Muslims.

Meanwhile, even this limited Orthodox openness could prove unstable. For all the current ecumenical calm, the militant bishops who dominated the headlines in the mid-1990s are still in office. They would quickly rally alongside nationalist forces if NATO resorted to military action in Kosovo.

That's been the basic view of Church leaders abroad, who have warned that a military onslaught will undermine those working for peace within Yugoslavia.

Speaking in mid October, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary for Relations with States in the Vatican Secretariat of State, reiterated the Pope's appeals for a “direct dialogue” between the warring sides, and called for “international humanitarian forces” to help impose a settlement.

Just what that “settlement” might be, could be decided in the coming weeks.

Since the last serious clashes occurred around Komorane on Oct. 18-19, the precarious stand-off has held. But though Western governments have opposed making Kosovo independent, it's clear that only far-reaching concessions will stand any chance of persuading Kosovo's Albanian majority to remain part of Yugoslavia.

Archbishop Perko says he last spoke with Bishop Sopi in mid October and knows the plight of Kosovo's Catholics has now slightly eased.

But he doubts the nationalism, now so deeply ingrained among Serbs and Albanians, will be appeased by brokered deals — especially when every broken cease-fire gives hard-liners the initiative on both sides.

“Milosevic has his own way of acting. When international pressure is exerted, he says yes: but if he can find a better way, he then takes that instead,” the archbishop said. “We must hope the Albanians will bow to international demands for dialogue too. But in the meantime, we'll have to cope with the Balkan situation somehow, and with the unlikelihood of any stable peace for the next 10-20 years.”

Back at his Prizren church, Father Zefi is more hopeful. With relations now tense even among ordinary citizens, he points out, appeals for coexistence sound unconvincing.

But the Catholic Church will go on appealing for Serbs and Albanians to trust each other, and stay at their homes rather than trying to flee.

“We are determined to be optimistic — but in a realistic, objective way,” Father Zefi told the Register. “It's up to Rugova and the politicians around him to determine whether we're to seek autonomy or independence. The Catholic Church will be glad with any outcome [in] accord with the rights and wishes of Kosovo's people.”

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Warsaw, Poland.