The Vatican Sides with the Serbian Church

Roman Catholic leaders refuse to regognize Kosovo, the craddle of Serbian culture; “One cannot erase history in this way.”

Two Orthodox priests stand next to a demolished holy site in Kosovo | Photo: Vera Bojkovich

When Kosovo declared its independence in January 2008, Serbia and five of the 27 EU members along with some 89 other sovereign states refused to recognize it, sending the case to the International Court of Justice. Public hearings held last December in Hague are still inconclusive.

And now, the cause has been further complicated by the opposition of the Vatican.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a member of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum – part of the Curia of the Catholic Church that helps the needy by “manifesting the charity of Christ” – explained that Vatican has not recognized Kosovo out of “compassion for the needy” and consideration for the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC).

“We, of course, know that Kosovo is a heavy wound and pain for the SPC,” said Cardinal Kasper in an interview with the Catholic news agency Kathpress. “We also know that [Kosovo] is the cradle and centre of Serbian Orthodoxy. We understand that and wish [others] to have consideration for it.”

On Feb. 17 of last year, the emotions of angry Serbs exploded into mass protests held all over the capital. Millions of citizens from all over the country gathered in the streets of Belgrade to peacefully protest against what they considered a direct attack on Serbian sovereignty.

“Kosovo is everything to us” one protestor shouted, “the cradle of our centuries-old and cherished history and culture.”

The cry swelled over the crowd: “Give us back what belongs to us.”

To the protestors, these words symbolized their last hopes, because, even though many were very aware of the history, few were willing to admit that the problem dates back more than 20 years; that the greatest influence on what has become the increasingly uncontrollable development of the conflict is of a religious nature.

And that is the fault of both Serbs and Kosovar Albanians.

Kosovar Serbs are Eastern Orthodox, but Kosovar Albanians are Muslim. And the gulf is wide, involving both cultural and political disagreements in the two nations’ visions: while Serbian authorities believe that the Interim Administration in Kosovo (UNMIK) should remain in the region to secure the minority of Kosovar Serbs, Albanian representatives claim that resolution under which UN forces entered Kosovo is outdated and, therefore, should not be extended.

The conflict reached its climax during the March violence of 2004, when three out of six Albanian boys drowned in a river of Ibar, the night before the attack. The Albanian authorities reconstructed the crime, claiming that the Serbs from the local village of Cabar let dogs loose on six children who then were forced to jump into the river. Three of them were found dead the very next morning. The incident – for which Serbs continue to deny responsibility and investigators proved right as well – is one Albanians say has provoked one of the worst conflicts in the region since the UN troops marched in 1999.

In just three days, 4.012 Serbs and other non-Albanians were forced to exile. Eleven Albanians and eight Serbs died; 954 others, including few UN troop members, were injured, while 35 Orthodox churches and monasteries were burned to ground.

Serbs understood this as an attack not only on their fellow citizens, but also on the culture and traditions of their country.

“The Vatican supports the protection of Orthodox monuments, churches and monasteries in Kosovo,” Kasper said. With the 2009 violence in mind, church leaders are ready to defend what they too consider an insult to the Serbian traditions and faith.

“In Kosovo, significant historical, cultural and religious monuments have been destroyed. This must not be so,” Kasper asserted. “One cannot erase history in this way.”

However, some argue that this “support” is simply an expression of the Vatican’s own interest, in the ongoing effort to undermine the strength of Central European Muslims.  Whether the Vatican is truly standing up for the Serbian Orthodox Church on the merits, is unclear.

However, the extent of their influence is questionable, and the final decision may in fact, remain in the hands of the International Criminal Court in the following two years.

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