This week, Montenegro voted to end its union with Serbia, the last remaining alliance of the former Yugoslav federation. News accounts of the vote frequently add matter-of-factly that Kosovo, the Serb province placed under the administration of the United Nations in 1999, is next in line to gain its independence and probably by the end of the year.
But anyone who cares about religious freedom, the rights of minorities, and the rule of law should be highly skeptical of an independent Kosovo. Since 1999, when a NATO bombing campaign drove out Serb military forces fighting an Albanian separatist movement, the Orthodox Christian minority in Kosovo has been under intense pressure from Albanian Muslim extremists.
In a Feb. 18 letter to President George Bush, the Serbian Orthodox bishop Artemije of Kosovo and Metohija - the ranking church official in the region - said that granting the province independence would hand terrorists “a significant victory” in Europe.
“Detaching Kosovo from democratic Serbia would mean a virtual sentence of extinction for my people in the province - the larger part of my diocese - who continue to face unremitting violence from jihad terrorist and criminal elements that dominate the Albanian Muslim leadership,” the bishop said.
Dozens of churches, monasteries and shrines have been destroyed or damaged since 1999 in Kosovo, the cradle of Orthodox Christianity in Serbia. The Serbian Orthodox Church lists nearly 150 attacks on holy places, which often involve desecration of altars, vandalism of icons and the ripping of crosses from Church rooftops. A March 2004 rampage by Albanian mobs targeted Serbs and 19 people, including eight Kosovo Serbs, were killed and more than 900 injured, according Agence France Press. The UN mission in Kosovo, AFP said , reported that 800 houses and 29 Serb Orthodox churches and monasteries - some of them dating to the 14th century — were torched during the fighting. NATO had to rush 2,000 extra troops to the province to stop the destruction.
All this happened despite the presence of UN peacekeeping forces. According to news reports posted by the American Council for Kosovo , Albanian separatists are opposing the expansion of military protection of Christian holy sites by UN forces. A main concern of Christians is the fate of the Visoki Decani Monastery - Kosovo's only UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Direct talks, under the auspices of the UN, are now underway. Serbia is resisting pressure from Western powers to amputate Kosovo, where the UN says Albanians outnumber Serbs and others 9-1. One of the thornier issues is the possible return of non-Albanians who have fled the province since 1999. Some estimates put their number as high as 250,000.
Western diplomats and Albanian independence groups are promising that a new independent Kosovo would allow the Serb minority to live in peace and enable the province - one of the poorest regions in Europe - to rebuild its economy.
The Alliance for a New Kosovo , a pro-independence group with former U.S. State Department and elected officials on its advisory board, has been lobbying for a split from Serbia. William Ryerson, a former U.S. ambassador to Albania who is one of the group's advisers, wrote recently that Serbia had “lost any moral claim” to rule Kosovo following “its campaign of ethnic cleansing” in the 1990s. He predicted that an independent Kosovo, linked economically to the rest of Europe, would “much more likely be a source of stability in the Balkans than one denied that status.”
If that is to happen, the province will first have to clean up its act. For years, the region has been a center of activity for criminal gangs. “Kosovo has become a black hole of corruption and organized crime, including trafficking in drugs, weapons and slaves,” Bishop Artemije told President Bush. “All too often, these things happen under the noses of NATO soldiers, who fear to confront these criminals directly.”
Journalist Srdja Trifkovic, writing on Serbianna.com , said an independent Kosovo would lead to a “criminal state not seen since the defunct Taliban regime in Afghanistan” and right on Europe's southern border. Although the international community understandably desires “closure” on Kosovo some seven years after the UN assumed control, an outcome that separates the province from Serbia would “make a mockery” of some the United States' most important security concerns, he said.
“It would be hard to find another example of a place where governments professing the war on international terrorism as their first priority are helping a Muslim terrorist movement with a strong jihadist element to detach what is universally recognized as a part of another sovereign state and consigning the remaining Christian element to extinction,” Trifkovic said.
Given the record of Christian persecution in Kosovo while under the supervision and protection of the UN, what could be expected from an independent province administered by Albanian Muslim politicians and security forces?
As Bishop Artemije told President Bush in his letter, the only decrease in violence against Serbian Christians has come about because there are fewer of them in the province, and fewer churches, monasteries and cemeteries now to be demolished. He pleaded with Bush to work toward a Kosovo solution that “provides for the human dignity and respect for all people, whether Albanian or Serb or Roma or Turk, whether Muslim or Christian.” An independent Kosovo, he added, “is neither inevitable nor desirable.”
Christians who are troubled by the persecution of their Church should pay heed to the bishop's warning. Without adequate legal protection and security, the Christian minority and the centuries-old legacy of the faith in Kosovo may soon become a mere memory.