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COMMENTARY: Kosovo - What now?

The KFOR peace-keeping force needs to defend the Serbian population and its Orthodox churches more effectively, a military chaplain, who prefers not to be identified, argues from personal experience of the violence in Kosovo in this personal commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The chaplain believes that international organisations naively did not understand the minds of the people of the region – and so did not understand what was necessary to provide religious freedom. The international community needs to state clearly that independence will not be granted until minorities have full rights and security. The big challenge is changing people's mentality before independence can be considered – and this requires a long-term commitment to genuine peace and genuine justice from both Albanian politicians and the international community.

SERBIA: Religious freedom survey, August 2004

In its survey analysis of religious freedom in Serbia, Forum 18 News Service notes the problems caused by a proposed draft religion bill, religious education in schools, and physical attacks on religious minorities. However, alternative civilian service regulations have been introduced, so conscientious objectors to military service are not now prosecuted. In a listing of attacks on religious minorities in 2003, Forum 18 records that Evangelical-Methodists, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists, Serbian Evangelicals, Jehovah Witnesses, Lutherans, Romany Pentecostals, Baptists, Hare Krishna devotees, Catholics, and Muslims were all victims of different types of attack in 2003, ranging from hate speech and graffiti to physical assaults. A noted church-state commentator, Mirko Djordevic, has told Forum 18 that "we cannot say that the religious freedom of Serbian citizens is threatened, but different confessions limit each others freedom." Pavel Domonji, from the Helsinki Committee, observed to Forum 18 that "Small religious communities are often under attack. It is probably because they form trans-national communities, where every believer is a member, regardless of their ethnic background."

SERBIA: "Discriminatory" religion bill

Religious minorities and human rights activists have told Forum 18 News Service that a draft Serbian religion bill is discriminatory. If passed, the bill would give full rights only to religious communities recognised by the parliament of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia between 1918 and 1941. These communities are the Serbian Orthodox Church, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Slovak and Hungarian/German Lutherans, and the Hungarian Reformed Church. They will receive substantial state financial support and the right to perform marriages, burials and to maintain marriage registers. Other religious communities would be denied these rights and have strongly criticised the bill, the Baptists pointing out to Forum 18 that the only communities recognised are essentially mono-ethnic, and so the bill discriminates against "multi-ethnic" religious communities and is thus un-constitutional. Milan Radulovic, Minister of Religion, has dismissed criticisms as "communist".

SERBIA/MONTENEGRO: Romany tent church demolition averted?

This morning (30 April), building inspectors, three police squad cars, an electrical distribution company crew and a demolition team, tried to demolish a tent used by the Protestant Evangelical Romany Church, observed by Forum 18 News Service. However, almost 1,000 believers from the church held a worship concert in the tent and in a yard, stopping the demolition. This was the latest move in a long-running struggle between the city council and the church, in which the council based its actions on the fact that building is prohibited on the site. But only the church tent was singled out for demolition, despite there being other buildings on the site, including an industrial plant and homes. An agreement was reached later today, under which the city council will provide new land for the church tent, and the church will move the tent to this land.

KOSOVO & SERBIA: Destruction worse than initially believed, and violence sparks incidents in Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia

At least 28 people were killed, about 1,000 injured and 30 Orthodox churches and monasteries in Kosovo were destroyed during the recent violence by Albanian mobs against the minority Serbian population, KFOR and UNMIK units. Numbers are not yet final. The Serbian Orthodox Church is today demanding that German KFOR troops be withdrawn from duty in for "incompetence" during the violence, as they failed to save from destruction ten historic churches and other Orthodox property. Witnesses stated that the German KFOR troops did nothing to protect any of the sites. Also, the diocese blames UNMIK for failing to protect its sites in the period from 1999 to before the present violence, during which 112 Orthodox churches were destroyed without any attackers being arrested. In Serbia, the authorities have arrested 120 people for attacks against mosques in Belgrade and Nis, and religious leaders, political parties and the government have joined in condemned the burning of the two mosques. City officials have promised to refurbish the Belgrade mosque, and the police chief and his deputy have been fired. However, the Kosovo violence also probably sparked incidents elsewhere in Serbia, and in neighbouring Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia.

KOSOVO & SERBIA: "Do not abandon convent to destruction", bishop pleads

Kosovo's Orthodox bishop Artemije (Radosavljevic) has today (19 March) gained a commitment from the KFOR peacekeeping force to defend the Sokolica convent which has been threatened with destruction by Albanian mobs amid the continuing anti-Serb violence, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. He had earlier complained that the Albanian mob first attacks, then waits for KFOR and UNMIK to evacuate the Serbian population or clergy before stepping in to burn and destroy. In devastating criticism of the local political leaders, Council of Europe parliamentary assembly leader Peter Schieder wrote to Kosovo's prime minister Bajram Rexhepi to condemn the violence and "the disgraceful  absence of clear and unequivocal condemnation of the anti-Serb violence by the Kosovo Albanian leadership". And he warned: "Kosovo cannot build its future on the blood of innocent people and the ashes of their burned homes and churches."

KOSOVO & SERBIA: Pristina Orthodox priest "lucky" to be alive

The parish priest of the St Nicholas' Church in Kosovo's capital Pristina has told Forum 18 News Service that he is lucky to be alive after an Albanian mob burnt his church down yesterday evening, and set his parish house on fire just before dawn this morning. "I was lucky they did not look in the cellar otherwise God knows if this morning I would still be alive," he told Forum 18. St Nicholas' church, has long been under threat, especially since KFOR's guard force was removed last May. Since 1999, no attackers on this or any other Orthodox Church have been arrested by UNMIK, KFOR, or the mainly ethnically Albanian Kosovo Protection Service. At least 31 people have been killed so far, and about 17 churches and other Serbian Orthodox sites destroyed in the anti-Serb violence that began on 17 March and is still continuing (see F18News 18 March 2004 http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=280). Some Albanian politicians have, along with the Visoki Decani Orthodox Monastery, tried to stop the violence, which the international ombudsperson, Marek Antoni Nowicki described as "the intent to cleanse this land from the presence of all Serbs, in total rejection of the idea of a multi-ethnic cohabitation in Kosovo". An Orthodox Church in neighbouring Bosnia was also set on fire late yesterday (18 March).

KOSOVO & SERBIA: Churches & mosques destroyed amid inter-ethnic violence

Large scale violence in Kosovo and Serbia before the 5th anniversary of Nato's bombing raids has seen many Serbian Orthodox churches and mosques attacked, amid disputed suggestions, including by an un-named UNMIK official, that the violence in Kosovo was planned as a "pogrom against Serbs: churches are on fire and people are being attacked for no other reason than their ethnic background", Forum 18 News Service has learnt. In the Serbian capital Belgrade and in the southern city of Nis, mobs set two mosques on fire despite the pleas of the Serbian Orthodox Church. In Belgrade, Metropolitan Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral personally pleaded with the mob and urged police and firefighters to react and preserve "what could be preserved". After initial hesitation for fear of the mob, firefighters and police did intervene, so the Belgrade mosque, which is "under state protection", was saved from complete destruction. In Kosovo since 1999, many attacks have been made on Orthodox shrines, without UNMIK, KFOR, or the mainly ethnically Albanian Kosovo Protection Service making any arrests of attackers.

MACEDONIA: Orthodox Monk and Bishop fined, and another Bishop still jailed

A Serbian Orthodox Bishop, Marko (Kimev), and a monk, Sasko Velkov, have been fined yesterday (27 January) for taking part in a baptism last July, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Another Bishop, Jovan (Vranisskovski), who conducted the baptism, is still in jail for his participation in a church service on 11 January at which Bishop Marko and other monks and nuns were also arrested by Macedonian police. Bishop Marko told Forum 18 that the arrest and sentencing of monks and nuns is "an obvious attempt to scare Macedonian Orthodox Church monks who desired to join the Serbian Orthodox Church". Both the Serbian and Greek Orthodox churches have asked the Macedonian government to release Bishop Jovan, who Amnesty International has described as being in jail for his "non-violent religious convictions". Macedonian officials have rejected these appeals.

MACEDONIA: Serbian Orthodox Archbishop arrested again

Serbian Orthodox Archbishop Jovan has again been arrested by Macdonian police, along with four monks, seven nuns, and a theology student from Bulgaria currently studying in Greece, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. The Archbishop and the monks and nuns have been held in jail, and the theology student has been deported and banned for two years from entering Macedonia. The latest arrests took place when police interrupted a church service, and appears to be linked to moves by some within the Macedonian Orthodox Church, including some monasteries, to be reconciled with the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Macedonian government has told Forum 18 that "entering spiritual and canonical unity with the Archbishopric of Ohrid", which the government claims is "non-existent in Macedonia", constitutes "the dissemination of religious hatred."

KOSOVO: No peace for Orthodox Christmas

The Orthodox Christmas season this month has been marred in Kosovo by a series of violent incidents, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. A church was broken into and several items and some money were stolen, and a bus was attacked by local Albanians at the Decani monastery after the Christmas service. The attack on the church follows an earlier attack in November 2003. Officials of the United Nations administration (UNMIK) have condemned the attacks, the latest in a series since 1999 for which no arrests have ever been made. Speaking to Forum 18 about the attack on the bus, Fr Sava Janjic of the Decani monastery described it as a "demonstration of utmost religious intolerance" on Christmas "a holiday of peace and forgiveness". "What a paradox, that the attack was made at a moment when the head of UNMIK, only a hundred metres away, was speaking with the local Decani assembly president and appealed to him to show tolerance and understanding towards Decani monastery."

KOSOVO: Hand Grenade Attack on Orthodox Church

Forum 18 News Service has learnt that an Orthodox church in Urosevac has been attacked with a hand grenade, even though it was guarded by Greek troops of the NATO-led KFOR. Since 1999 there have been many such attacks on Orthodox sites, without any arrests being made of perpetrators. Expressing gratitude to the Greek KFOR troops for their protection, the local Orthodox diocese told Forum 18 that "if the Church of St Uros had not been under the constant protection of KFOR, it is likely it would have been destroyed like other Serbian Orthodox churches in the Urosevac and Nerodimlje region."