NEWS STORY: Serbian Orthodox Bishop Struggles to Find Path to Peace

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

GRACANICA, Yugoslavia _ Early on a recent Friday morning, Kosovo’s Bishop Artemije prayed, as he usually does, with a couple dozen nuns and monks inside Gracanica Monastery.

As rays of morning sunshine caught particles of incense, the nuns sang in Old Church Slavonic and two burly priests chatted blithely away in Serbian, it wasn’t hard to imagine life here in the early 14th century when the monastery was built.

But minutes after the long service ended at about 7:30 a.m., a column of Swedish tanks destroyed the effect as they loudly rattled by, on patrol in the Serb enclave that surrounds the monastery.

A couple hours later in the monastery’s reception room, his tiny mobile phone within easy reach, Bishop Artemije (Radosavljevic) presided over the daily meeting of leaders of the Serb National Council of Kosovo and Metohija, of which he is president.

Across the room, sipping espresso and nibbling at cake brought by a nun, two U.S. soldiers armed with automatic rifles waited for a word with their charge, the diminutive 65-year-old bishop.

The Serbian Orthodox bishop is arguably Kosovo’s most powerful Serb, knee-deep in ethnic politics that are both dirty and dangerous. As a respected moderate, the prelate is certainly the United Nation’s best hope at stemming the Serb exodus from the region, a task which more than 40,000 NATO-led troops have failed since arriving last June following 78 days of NATO bombing.

In an interview here, punctuating his points by gently rapping a wooden table with his fist, the bishop spoke forcefully about the Serbian Orthodox Church’s inescapable role in Kosovo.

“My biggest task is to keep the Serbs here. My second biggest task is to bring the refugees back here,” said Artemije, referring to the estimated 150,000 Serbs who fled since the NATO bombing campaign ended and the Yugoslav Army withdrew.

About 100,000 Serbs remain, harassed by the Albanian Kosovar majority. Murders, kidnappings and arson attacks are frequent enough to sustain a steady flow of Serbs out of Kosovo. The bishop himself abandoned his diocesan seat in Prizren, regrouping at the convent here in Gracanica with a handful of monks for assistants.

The inability of KFOR, the name of the NATO-led force in Kosovo, to create the safe environment necessary for a democratic, self-governing multi-ethnic province is the source of much tension between Artemije and Kosovo’s temporary U.N. administration.

Earlier this summer, after a good deal of U.S.-led nudging, Artemije signed an agreement on Serb security concerns with Bernard Kouchner, the chief United Nations administrator for Kosovo. Artemije said implementation of the agreement _ the first between Serbs and the U.N. _ “is going very slowly.”

“For the creation of a normal life, they are doing very little … Murders keep happening every day,” he said.

The issue that seems to most gall Artemije personally is that of freedom of movement. With their black cassocks, flowing beards and pillbox hats, Orthodox clergy are obvious targets for Albanian extremists who, like Artemije, see the obvious link between Serbs’ continued presence in Kosovo and the Serbian church. When Artemije travels he does so in convoy with one armored personnel carrier in front, one behind and he and two soldiers in a car.

KFOR requires 48 hours notice to arrange a convoy. To go without an armed escort, the bishop said, is “to every time place my neck on a platter.”

The restrictions on Artemije’s movement _ much less those of simple Serbs _ between isolated Serb enclaves underlies the bishop’s dogged opposition to Kosovo Serbs’ participation in citywide municipal elections set for October.

“How can there be a vote when I can’t talk to the people in a village without showing up with a KFOR tank. I would arrive like a traitor,” he said, referring to many Serbs’ view of KFOR as an occupying army. “Without a free life, you cannot have a free vote.”

The U.N. administration has gotten only a small number of Serbs to register for the vote, thus leaving them out of the first post-war attempt to set up a democratic process.

Artemije also urges anyone who will listen to boycott Yugoslavian federal elections set for September, both because normal campaigning cannot take place in Kosovo and also because he is convinced Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic will fix the polls.

“We know that elections are necessary if we are going to have a democracy, but the conditions don’t exist in either place,” said Artemije, who was a dogged critic of Milosevic and his policies in Kosovo years before the crisis garnered the world’s attention last year.

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For that and for his monks’ risky defense of Albanian Kosovars’ lives and property throughout the 1990s, Artemije is respected and sometimes admired by Kosovo’s Muslim leadership. The region’s top Muslim cleric is not happy, however, with what he sees as Artemije’s foray into politics.

Kosovo’s Grand Mufti, Rexhep Boja, spiritual leader to the majority Muslim population, says religion and politics are simply too volatile a mix.

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From Yugoslavia’s capital of Belgrade, Milosevic’s government reviles Artemije as a traitor for signing the recent agreement with the United Nations. In Kosovo, especially in the northern enclave of Mitrovica, Artemije’s fellow Serbs have a similar view of his accommodation with the United Nations. Few are swayed by the argument that the Serbian Orthodox Church is merely doing now what it did for 500 years of Ottoman Turk rule _ defending Serb interests to an occupying power.

Artemije strenuously objects to the notion that he is playing a political role. “I don’t take part in politics. What I do is not political,” he said emphatically.

Indeed, his Serb National Council will not be among the roughly 30 political organizations vying for votes in Kosovo’s October elections. But when local Serb politicians come every morning to the monastery for meetings of the Council’s leadership and when the bishop presides in paternal but not patronizing tones, it is hard not to see a political process at work.

Whatever it is called, for Artemije the stakes are high. He says the fate of Serbia as a nation is in the balance.

“Serbian power cannot exist without Kosovo because it is the heart of Serbia,” said the bishop, credited with revitalizing Kosovo’s dozens of monasteries. “If a person loses his heart, he just becomes a body.”

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