The Serbian Orthodox bubble: A visit to Kosovo’s Dečani Monastery

For ten years the Serbian Orthodox Church has rejected Kosovo’s declared independence, yet despite political tensions between Belgrade and Pristina, they must find a way to live peacefully with Kosovar Albanians.

Smelling of freshly cut grass, the Dečani monastery sits silently in the centre of a huge KFOR presence. Enclosed within a series of gates and fences, it seems somewhat out of place within the town of Dečani itself. Lined with white marble, a private vineyard and complete with a personal gift shop, the Dečani monastery truly is a Serbian Orthodox paradise.

This hidden community acts like a bubble, completely separated from the outside world. Inside, people walk freely between buildings hugging and kissing one another, and after a small while one forgets that they have entered this Serbian Orthodox fortress.

With impeccable preservation, the main difference to be seen between this particular monastery and those who share a similar history is the lack of rubble and debris scattered around the area.

Patriarchate of Pec ruins outside the preserved Monastery. Photo: Taylah Fellows

Compared to the Patriarchate of Pec, the second most important Serbian Church in Kosovo, Dečani’s monastery is in pristine condition.

The monastery wants to improve the lives of the Serbian minority living in Kosovo, aiming to make them feel safe both inside and outside the walls of their place of worship. However, because of weak post-war negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, they fear Kosovo is closer to becoming an ethnic Albanian state.

Fears of an ethnic Albanian Kosovo

The destruction of Serbian heritage monuments in Kosovo and the consequent loss of Serbian culture have been labeled as a type of ethnic cleansing, The Serbian Orthodox Church maintains that 176 monasteries and churches have been either burned or destroyed in Kosovo since Serbia was forced to withdraw from the then province in 1999. Furthermore, the Dečani monastery has been attacked four times, including one bazooka attack in 2007.

Father Sava, who lives in the monastery, still fears that some Albanians wish for the new Kosovo to be ‘ethnically clean’.

“Of course we expected hard feelings and vengeance because of the terrible things [Slobodan] Milošević did, but things are going much further than that. This is seen by many as an attempt to finally get rid of Serbs,” he says.

“What I see now is ethnic Albanian Kosovo, which is not actually the Kosovo that was planned to be created by internationals.”

“We are very much exposed, and that is why the KFOR presence here is very strong. If tensions rise between Albanians and Serbians, we are somehow the big Serbian flag in the centre of Albanian territory, but many see us as some kind of big Serbian presence.”

The Serbian Orthodox churches that remain in Kosovo represent a deep history of religious segregation that can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. Before the turn of the 19th Century, religion was considered the most important thing to both Serbians and Albanians living in Kosovo. However, this has led to a series of turbulent religious conflicts over the past two decades.

Dečani Monastery built by Serbian king Stefan Dečanski. Photo: Taylah Fellows

From the safe confines of the Dečani monastery, Father Sava explains that the protected heritage site has always been a religious focal point in Kosovo. He describes the Dečani area as “practically the birthplace of the Kosovo Liberation Army,” and within it, the monastery stands as a strong symbol of Serbian history and tradition. Today, it remains concerned about the looming threat of nationalist Albanians who view Serbian churches as a blockade to Kosovo’s independence.

“There are two schools of thinking, so I hope the reasonable ones will prevail. Some only want to destroy the sites, and some want to actually change the history of Kosovo itself,” says Father Sava.

 

“What’s really the problem is the nation-building process of new Kosovo. These [religious] places don’t fit this idea.”

Even though the Serbian Orthodox Church does not officially recognise Kosovo as an independent state, it does wish to act as a building block towards further integration between Albanians and Serbians in Kosovo.

The need for further integration

Father Sava hopes the international presence and protection of the Dečani monastery will be strong enough to make Albanians understand that they can profit from having Serbian sites (and Serbs) remain in Kosovo.

“For those who would like to see Kosovo as a multi-ethnic state with democratic rule and law of order, monasteries are not a problem, but an asset, because they want to be a part of Europe, and monasteries link this idea of tradition, that Kosovo is not only Muslim but also a Christian society,” he says.

“No matter who contributed to this cultural heritage, it is only something that Kosovo can benefit from.”

He also hopes that international influencers such as the US and Germany will encourage the Kosovar and Serbian governments to avoid opting for partition. Successful negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, however unlikely, are seen as the key for the Serbian minority to be accepted into the Kosovar-Albanian community. 

“It’s very strange. There are Serbian politicians and Kosovar politicians who are in favour of partition, even if it means sacrificing their own citizens,” he explains.

“Of course, if you think we are happy with independent Kosovo, we are not, but it’s not that Kosovo’s independence is some sort of blow to Serbian nationalism.

Father Sava sitting in one of the tea rooms at Dečani Monastery. Source Taylah Fellows

“We don’t agree with the independence particularly because of the (Albanian) behavior after the war, but it’s not so black and white as in you’re either for independent Kosovo or against it, like if you’re for it you have to suddenly renounce your Serbian identity.”

Political disputes between Belgrade and Pristina, such as the recent arrest of Serbian politician Marko Djuric, bears an influence on civil relations between Albanians and Serbians, increasing tensions between the two ethnic groups. Father Sava argues that this type of conflict takes the integration process “many steps back.”

The Kosovar population consists of a 90 percent Muslim majority, and Kosovar citizens seem to notice segregation.

“Not many Christians are here anymore because this is a Muslim country,” says churchgoer Nehat Hajdari.

 

 

However, Father Sava states that as long as there is tension between governments, Serbians will be seen as a danger.

“Sometimes our voice is not as strong as these politicians and certain negative things they do that are much stronger actions than months of (positive) discussions.

“The Serbians who remain here, their future is somewhat precarious,” he says, sipping on his Turkish coffee inside his protected paradise bubble.