Kosovo Tensions Put More Than People at Risk

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."

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