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.
Dressed in black robes and headcaps, the monks at the ancient Syriac Christian Orthodox monastery of Mor Gabriel in southeast Turkey sat gravely for dinner one recent cold night. Led by their bishop, they said their prayers in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and ate their meal of meat and rice in sepulchral silence, the clinking of forks and spoons resonating in the bare white room.
The death of Russian Orthodox Patriach Alexiy II and talk about his possible successor got Aleksandras Budrys, a correspondent in our Moscow bureau, to reminiscing about how he covered Alexiy’s election in 1990 for the official news agency TASS. Here’s his account of reporting on religion near the end of communism in Russia:
Last month I visited Mount Athos, a self- governing monastic state in northern Greece where some 1,500 monks live according to rules which have changed little in the last millennium. Athos’ 20 monasteries are considered by the world’s 300 million Orthodox as perhaps the second most holy site of their faith, after Jerusalem. They are home to breathtaking religious art and thousands of manuscripts dating back to the Byzantine empire, as well as priceless relics, like fragments of the True Cross, believed by the Orthodox faithful to have performed countless miracles.
The all-male Greek Orthodox monastic community of Mount Athos, a favourite stop for top Greek and foreign dignitaries such as Prince Charles but completely close to women, has long been a haven for those forsaking earthly pleasures to seek God.
The separistist movements at the heart of the Georgian crisis have split the Georgian Orthodox Church as well. As our correspondent Oliver Bullough reports from Abkhazia, the monks at the Novy Afon monastery have declared independence from the Georgian church and now work more closely with fellow Orthodox from Russia.