Serbian shrines in Kosovo surrounded by hostility
September 22 2014 11:32 PM


STILL STANDING: The monastery church of Decani in Pec, Kosovo. There are some 25 monks, most of them in their prime, still living here despite hostility from ethnic Albanians. The Decani monastery is kept under the tight scrutiny by an Italian carabinieri contingent.


By Thomas Brey

The magnificent patriarchate of the Serbian Orthodox Church near Pec, in western Kosovo, is home today to just 20 or so nuns, 15 of them elderly.

At the nearby monastery of Decani, there are some 25 monks, most of them still in their prime.

The places of pilgrimage, which go back to medieval times, are hanging on in the teeth of hostility from the ethnic Albanian population in the surroundings. The rare visitors must identify themselves to police in Pec because of the dangers.

The Decani monastery is kept under tight scrutiny by an Italian carabinieri contingent that is a part of the Nato-led peacekeeping mission which has been deployed in Kosovo since 1999.

In the past, soldiers used to escort the monks when they were outside the monastery walls. The situation is now more relaxed and when the monks pay a rare visit to Pec to go shopping, they go alone.

“We are mostly self-sufficient,” said one of the monks, Petar. “We have cows, goats, poultry and farm land.”

While security has improved, incidents keep the tension running high.

A monk tending to cows was recently verbally abused by Albanians and the name of a chief in the former guerrilla group Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was spray painted on a monastery farmhouse.

“The Albanians eye us with hatred, because we are the last remnants of the Serbian presence in Kosovo,” Petar tried to explain.

Civic leaders in Decani — like authorities at all levels in Kosovo — include many KLA fighters from the 1998-99 war for independence from Serbia.

To them, the presence of the monasteries is a red rag to a bull.

The patriarchate, a compound comprising three small churches with astonishing frescoes, was built between 1230 and 1330. The Ascension of Christ church in Decani was built from two-tone marble from 1327 to 1335.

Both gems, recognised as world cultural heritage sites by Unesco, are a legacy from the heyday of the Serbian kingdom under the Nemanjic dynasty, from the 12th to 14th century.

Unesco included two other architectural gems of Serbia’s golden era in its list of exceptionally important sites: the Our Lady of Ljevis church in Prizren and the Gracanica church on the outskirts of Pristina, both from the 13th or 14th century.

The Albanians have no historic monuments from earlier than the 19th century and some Albanians have attempted to claim the Serbian churches as their own.

According to some of the pseudo-scientific theories offered to justify this, the architectural style of the monasteries and the frescoes is Byzantine, not Serbian. Some claim that they were originally Albanian buildings that were hijacked at some point by the Serbs.

None of the theories is taken seriously by art historians.

In March 2014, mobs of Albanians across Kosovo launched an attack on Serbian religious sites following false reports of an attack on Albanian children by Serbs.

The four sites from the Unesco list that have survived violent centuries of wars and Ottoman rule were not spared in the assault.

The cathedral in Prizren was set on fire and badly damaged, while the monasteries and churches in Pec, Decani and Gracanica survived as if by a miracle, with their unparalleled frescoes still radiant.

Particularly awe-inspiring is a fresco depicting the Nemanjic family tree, modelled on a so-called Tree of Jesse, a medieval pictorial motif to show the ancestry of Christ.

It meshes sainthood, which nearly all Serbian rulers were awarded after their deaths, with their earthly authority. The result was a typical Christian Orthodox phenomenon, the monarch-cum-saint. — DPA


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