LAST Sunday, on a warm, sunny afternoon, the new leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irenjy, was enthroned at the Patriarchate in Pec. The two-and-a-half-hour service was a unique blend of a highly formal and informal Orthodox liturgy.
Three hundred people gathered in the church, which holds only 100 comfortably. Patriarchates from all over the Orthodox world were represented, from Moscow, Athens, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, alongside invited Roman Catholic and Protestant leaders, three Serbian Islamic muftis, and two Anglicans: Canon Jonathan Goodall, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Ecumenical Secretary, and me.
The Pec Patriarchate, seat of the Patriarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church since 1217, is regarded as its spiritual centre (Comment, 10 July 2009). Stewarded by 20 nuns, its monastery stands in a deep forested gorge.
Two thousand people gathered in the courtyard, and there were many more outside, watching the liturgy on a television relay. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, people were smiling as they waited to catch a glimpse of the slight figure of Patriarch Irenjy. The crowd sang a chorus of “May you live for ever”.
But we were not in Serbia. Pec is in the independent Republic of Kosovo. Apart from the nuns here, and the monks at Decani, ten miles down the road, there are few Christians in the area. No Kosovo Albanians had been invited to the service. To have done so, I was told, would have been to acknowledge Kosovo as an independent state, no longer part of Serbia.
Security was discreet. No one protested except for three Kosovo Albanians, who threw stones at a convoy of buses returning to Montenegro after the ceremony.
Yet things are changing. After a ruling by the International Court of Justice in July, which recognised the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity. The EU will broker talks between Serbia and Kosovo. Both wish to move as quickly as possible towards European integration, so the status of Kosovo has to be resolved.
Woven into any agreement has to be a guarantee about the future of the Serbian Orthodox monasteries. The Serbian Orthodox Church is a significant Serbian institution: for centuries, it defined Serb identity. No Serb politician would allow the monasteries to be harmed.
One proposal is that they become “extra-territorial”, with their own international Swiss Guard, like the Vatican. But, whatever is agreed, it cannot be implemented without the active support of Kosovo Albanians. At Pec, I talked to the leader of the Islamic community in Belgrade, Mufti Muhamed Jusufspahic. He told me: “Doors are opening.” It should be possible to bring the parties together, he said, though he acknowledged the difficulties.
The Soul of Europe, our organisation which has worked as a mediator in the Balkans since 2000, is familiar with these difficulties, and has been invited to help in the process. It has gained the support of the Serbian Orthodox Church, as well as Kosovo Albanian leaders. Once funding is secured, we will do what we can.
Before our arrival, the police had removed posters in Pec proclaiming Patriarch Irenjy to be a war criminal. These sentiments are not representative of Kosovo Albanian public opinion; there are many who endorse all efforts to break down the walls of suspicion and paranoia.
As we returned to Belgrade — a nine-hour bus journey through some of the wildest terrain in Europe — I recalled a conversation with the Abbess of Pec a year ago: “We live in a prison here.”
International agreements are likely to make the “prison” more secure, but they will not contribute to healthy community relations between Kosovo Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, let alone opportunities for reconciliation.
Canon Donald Reeves is Director of the Soul of Europe. www.soulofeurope.org