Biden visit to Kosovo monastery splits Serbian Orthodox Church
DECANI, Kosovo – A visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to one of the best known monasteries in Kosovo has again revealed a deep split in the church. A veteran of Balkan complexities from his U.S. Senate activism against Serbian aggression during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Biden visited the 14th century Decani monastery on Thursday afternoon to highlight the importance protecting the Serbian minority in Kosovo.
(Photo: Fr. Janjic with U.S. Vice President Biden at Decani monastery, 21 May 2009/Adam Tanner)
Father Sava Janjic, sometimes called Decani’s “cyber monk” because of his embrace of the Internet, warmly welcomed the vice president, who had first visited there in 2001. “This is his second visit to this monastery which is one of the most important Serbian Orthodox sites in Kosovo,” Fr. Sava told Reuters in fluent English. “We sincerely believe his visit will help the preservation of Serbian Orthodox heritage in Kosovo and generally help the position of the Serbian people in Kosovo.”
However, the diocese overseeing Kosovo, which the church considers the cradle of Serbian Orthodoxy, issued a strong statement condemning the visit. “The U.S. vice president is visiting Kosovo as an independent state, to confirm forceful secession of Serbia’s territory and its hand over to Albanian terrorist who were not punished for numerous crimes against Serbian people, Serbian property and Serbian cultural and religious heritage,” the diocese said in a statement. “Does Joseph Biden want to confirm with his gesture that Decani is an American base in Kosovo, the same as Camp Bondsteel?”
(Photo:Heavily armed U.S. Secret Service agents during Biden visit to Decani, 21 May 2009/Adam Tanner)
The harsh words were the latest as the church seeks to sort out how to deal with Kosovo’s declared independence last year. The conservative acting church leader, Metropolitan Amfilohije Radovic, told Reuters in an interview last year that Serbs were treated so poorly in majority Albania Kosovo that future war was inevitable.
Fr. Sava did not want to address the latest controversy publicly, but noted the church leadership, the assembly of bishops meeting in Belgrade, had blessed the visit the day before Biden arrived. His monastery has in the past favoured a more moderate approach that includes dialogue with ethnic Albanian Kosovars, who are mostly Muslim.
Security was tight. In addition to Italian soldiers who normally guard what is the biggest Serbian Orthodox monastic brotherhood worldwide (with 30 monks), many secret service agents accompanied Biden inside the compound. Some heavily armed agents remained on guard as he went inside for talks, although a few took a tour of the church to admire its magnificent frescos.
Biden said he tried to bolster the monks by contrasting the often bitter racial tensions in the United States between blacks and whites when he started his professional career in 1968 and today when he serves as number two to the first black U.S. president barck Obama.
“I told the story to Father (Sava) today. They were down a little bit, they are feeling a little isolated, but wondering whether Europe is going to walk away,” Biden told Reuters and a few other reporters in an interview on Thursday night. “It’s going to take some time but we’ve got to stick with it.”
(Photo: U.S. officials at Decani church during Biden’s visit, 21 May 2009/Adam Tanner)
At the end of his three-day visit to Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, Biden said real integration among ethnic groups in the Balkans could prove even more difficult than it had been to end the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia. “What we are talking about now is real integration, not just the elimination of carnage and brutality, but there is where it really gets hard and it’s going to take time,” he said. “Things are drastically better than when I was last here, with a long way to go and in a sense the hardest piece to go.
“This is a process … it’s going to take a while,” he told reporters covering his visit.”
Here’s the Reuters TV report on Biden’s visit to Kosovo and Serbia:
Here’s a YouTube clip showing Decani and Fr. Sava, who calls Kosovo the “Serbian jerusalem.”