By Christine Spolar Chicago Tribune correspondent
10:42 PM CDT, September 13, 2008
DECANI, Kosovo — A new Balkan war has erupted — and this time all warriors can claim God is on their side.
Orthodox monks from two UN-protected monasteries in this former province of Serbia are openly rumbling over their future in Kosovo. A face-off last month at a revered monastery in Decani turned into an unholy brawl: The personal secretary of church leader Bishop Artemije was rushed by three Decani monks and heaved outside the church gate. He reportedly snapped an ankle.
The spark of the fracas is unclear—monks at both monasteries refused interviews—but the deeper dispute in a region that has trembled in the past with ethnic war is a revelation about the state of Serbian unity over Kosovo.
Serbian church officials, the rock of Serbian culture, are split in Kosovo over how to deal with the new government dominated by ethnic Albanians—and there is a stark difference in attitudes between generations of clerics.
Last week, Serbia signed off with the European Union on steps toward membership. Belgrade's more open approach to the West may, in part, be stirring the troubles in the Orthodox church.
"This is an old-fashioned political fight — among monks," said Cedomir Antic, a historian at the Institute for Balkan Studies in Belgrade. "The younger monks are considering the consequences of the political battles in Kosovo. They want to figure out a way to deal with the day-to-day problems—and whatever comes next."
Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo and intends to ask the UN's International Court of Justice to rule on the legality of Kosovo's declaration of independence. Still, as Serbia fumes, facts on the ground have changed.
A constitution has been passed by the Kosovo parliament, and about 100,000 ethnic Serbs and a couple of million ethnic Albanians have lived relatively quietly for seven months in a new country. Kosovo authorities continue to reach out to minority groups, and the long-bearded, black-robed Orthodox monks are key to that contact.
The question is which monks in which monastery are the touchstone of the Serb community.
In northern Kosovo, two dozen monks who live in the forested hills of Decani regularly see UN advisers. Decani's monk-superior, Vicar Bishop Teodosije, and the well-known Father Sava, both in their 40s, host European and NATO envoys, who meet, in turn, with Kosovo leaders. Sava is known as "The Cybermonk" for his Web-savvy ways in promoting the frescoed Decani Monastery.
Closer to the capital of Pristina, monks at the monastery in Gracanica are loyal to the hard-line mien of Grace Bishop Artemije.
The white-bearded diocesan leader reigns in Kosovo, and he flatly refuses to accept that his flock is not in Serbia anymore. Diplomats shrug that Artemije leaves no room for compromise. Daily, the Gracanica Monastery flies a Serbian flag from its balcony.
In February, as Kosovo declared independence, Artemije called for Russians to come bolster the Orthodox community in Kosovo. And in the heat of Serbia's presidential race, Artemije spoke out against Boris Tadic, the pro-European president who returned to power.
The breach among Orthodox priests has headlined Serb news. Even though monks at both monasteries refused last week to be interviewed, one version of facts was compiled, in deeply emotional dispatches, by Artemije on the Web site of the Diocese of Kosovo and Metohija.
One posting detailed the "Rebellion in Visoki Decani Monastery."
Teodosije and Sava, he said, "turned quiet and modest monks into rebels and bandits who arrogantly showed disobedience to their bishop and spiritual leader and who are ready to blindly commit even the most brutal violence." He demanded the two be dismissed.
This is what Artemije said happened:
When Artemije traveled to Decani to meet with Teodosije and Sava on Aug. 22, monks in his party were stopped by monks from Decani. The Decani monks sang loudly to conceal what happened next.
Artemije said his personal secretary "was attacked" by three monks and "dragged out of the monastery yard and thrown like a bag outside the gate." The monk's foot was broken, Artemije wrote.
Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, who monitors northern Kosovo and often visits Decani Monastery, was reluctant to discuss the fracas but said accounts of the fight and injuries "were exaggerated."
"I talked to the medical staff who treated him," Ivanovic said of the injured monk. "But I don't want to talk about this. We want the church to be peaceful."
The Kosovo clash clearly riveted church leaders in Belgrade—and at a delicate time. Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, 94, is in extremely frail health. Some observers wondered if church tensions in Kosovo were heightened by an internal power struggle.
The Holy Synod, the supreme authority of the Serbian Orthodox Church, tried to calm the waters with a call for an end to "all disputes and decisions" over Decani.
"Key decisions about this and all other burning issues will be made in the foreseeable future," it said in a statement. The synod also said that all the monks involved have its support in "witnessing Christ's love, truth, justice and well-being."
READ THE PREVIOUS POST RELATED TO THIS STORY:
ΟΔΟΙΠΟΡΙΚΟ ΣΤΑ ΠΑΡΑΛΙΑ ΤΗΣ ΜΙΚΡΑΣ ΑΣΙΑΣ -
46 minutes ago