A picturesque valley in the western province of Kosovo is home to the largest and most urgently preserved monastery in Serbia. The 14th century Visoki Decani monastery has not only survived the passage of time but also the ravages of war. Even though around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks after the war, the 100,000 who stayed are still targeted by sporadic violence. Stoning of police and attacks on individuals are not uncommon.
In 1998, Slobodan Milosevic, who was president at the time, led troops against Albanian forces in an effort to reclaim parts of Kosovo. The following year, NATO airstrikes in Kosovo ended the war when the United Nations intervened, offering a treaty between the two sides.
But ongoing tensions and violence between Kosovo's Serbian and Albanian populations don't simply affect the people who live there -- there's also a real physical threat to that region's centuries-old churches and monasteries.
If you wish to admire the Visoki Decani monastery, you must first pass a heavily armored military checkpoint and a thick 600-year-old wall. Inside lies the pearl of the Serbian Orthodox Church, such an important symbol of an endangered cultural heritage that its protection is at the top of the agenda of the latest diplomatic effort in the Balkans.
Seven years after that NATO intervention, ethnic Albanians and Serbian officials met a few days ago in Vienna to discuss the protection of the region's religious sites thus far guaranteed by international peacekeepers.
Nestled at the foot of the Prokletije Mountains in western Kosovo, on meadows that shepherds roam with their flocks, the Visoki Decani monastery seems centuries removed from modern politics. The mostly young monks lead a life that has changed little since medieval times, with one exception.
Father Sava juggles his mobile phone with his computer hooked up to the Internet, surrounded by piles of newspapers -- essential tools for this outspoken activist, who has been telling the outside world about his church and the plight of minority Serbs in the UN-governed former Yugoslav province.
"Living in a medieval setting does not mean accepting a medieval mentality. The Internet enables us to speak from the pulpit of a keyboard," said Father Sava, whose use of modern technology earned him the nickname "cybermonk," he told me the first time I met him in July 2000.
Six years later, not much has changed. While sipping coffee under the wooden porch with two Serbs who the monastery is hosting because they cannot return to their homes due to the ongoing still-ethnic tensions with the Albanians. Father Sava regrets the slow progress in building a truly multiethnic, respectful Kosovo.
"The monastery is a thorn in the eye for some people, he explains. "Symbolically, it is very important as a Christian monument, which proves that Serbs have been living here for centuries, and Kosovo has always been multiethnic, not monoethnic."
Life in Kosovo has been a struggle for Serbs since June 1999, when NATO air bombing halted Belgrade's repression against independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. Since then, this region has been a United Nations protectorate.
With the region still formally part of Serbia, negotiations aimed at resolving its status began in February. Ethnic Albanians say they will settle for nothing less than complete independence. And Serbs won't surrender land they consider the cradle of their civilization.
For them, Kosovo is "Metohija," the land of monasteries. The deadlocked region of fertile plains and snowcapped mountains is dotted with religious buildings, many of which are more than 400 years old.
In 2004, UNESCO listed Visoki Decani on the World Heritage List, citing its frescoes as "one of the most valued examples of the so-called Palaeologan renaissance in Byzantine painting" and "a valuable record of the life in the 14th century."
"Serbian Orthodox heritage in Kosovo is probably one of the most important parts of Serbian heritage in general. It is part of the Serbian identity," says Father Sava. But it's an identity in danger: Since 1999, more than 100 churches have been the target of Albanian extremists. The continual violence culminated in March 2004, when holy sites were targeted.
The city of Prizren, the jewel of the short-lived Serbian empire of the 14th century, suffered the worst damage, with four medieval buildings badly harmed.
The church of Bogorodica Ljeviska, completed by King Milutin in 1307, was burned down by a mob. Slobodan Curcic, professor of art and architecture at Princeton University and UNESCO consultant, considered it "one of the finest examples of late Byzantine architecture anywhere. For Curcic, "the destruction of these monuments are in fact acts against Byzantine cultural heritage."
At the meeting held in Vienna on the protection of this precious heritage, Ylber Hysa, a Kosovo Albanian negotiator, said that Kosovo's capital city, Pristina, is offering "full recognition of the rule and the status of the church in Kosovo." The ethnic Albanian-dominated government, Hysa added, is committed to "provid[ing] legal guarantees, physical protection, along with benefits like tax exemption, and creation of special zones."
For the moment, though, the international military presence seems to be essential. "We need long-term security, says Father Sava, as the monastery is not only Serb, it's part of a Christian heritage that belongs to the whole of Europe."
An important sign of reconciliation and recognition arrived when Fatmir Sejdiu -- the Kosovo Albanian president who took office last February after the death of independence-icon Ibrahim Rugova -- visited the Visoki Decani monastery to mark the Orthodox Easter, the first icebreaking gesture since the end of the conflict seven years ago.
Yet much remains to be done. "The problem," Father Sava reflects, "is that there is a very ethnic-based approach in Kosovo, where the Serbs are neglected, with a lack of responsibility in ensuring that Serbs should live like normal citizens. I wish we had a leadership that would take care of the citizens of Kosovo as a whole."