When Fr. Sava Janjic of Decani Monastery in western Kosovo arrived to deliver aid packages in the war-ravaged village of Crnobreg early in November,he was dismayed to discover the sign of the cross had been painted on manywalls and gates -- clearly the work of Serbian security forces who ofteninvoke the church in the fight against ethnic Albanian separatists.
"It was an abuse because the cross was being used as a symbol of hate," said Fr. Sava. "The cross is a symbol of love and of tolerance, of spiritual and human values. It is unacceptable to use it to humiliate anyone. Religion in our time is often used for political and ideological purposes. Because of its great emotional impact religion can help mobilize people, for good or evil."
Fr. Sava was born in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and is a graduate of the University of Belgrade. Now he is one of the 21 monks at Decani, where he divides his time between prayer, peace and relief efforts, the needs of guests, and the Internet. "I was just updating our homepage," a visitor is likely to hear him confess. The red-haired monk runs one of Kosovo's most popular web sites [www.decani.yunet.com].
Fr. Sava has little patience with those who regard the computer as inappropriate for monasteries. "You must remember," he points out, "that the first printing presses were made by the church."
Only a few miles away from the monastery, Serb police and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) rebels have shed each other's blood in a civil war that has displaced an estimated 200,000 people, killed hundreds, and left many homes in ruin.
"In May and June," Fr. Sava recalls, "we could hear the shooting and explosions in the near distance. The sky was aglow with the fire. We could not imagine what had happened until we saw for ourselves. The destruction was terrible."
The monastery started its homepage in 1997 to present the cultural and spiritual heritage in Kosovo, but when Serb police were sent to crush the KLA's independence drive in November 1997, the monks decided they had to work actively for peace. With the blessing of Bishop Artemije, the monks launched appeals for peace and negotiations. The web site's historical and religious topics quickly transformed into appeals for reason and calm.
Fr. Sava and the monks who help maintain the web site have attempted to move the Kosovo question beyond today's conflict, just one of numerous flare-ups in the region's history.
Fr. Sava applauds neither side in the current war. "This is a war between extremists," he says."On one side is a totalitarian regime, and on the other, secessionists. We condemn violence on both the Serb and Albanian sides, and we don't support militant secessionism."
He opposes outside military intervention, arguing that "it will only homogenize Serbs around hardline Serbian policies and destroy the prospects for democracy. The psychology of the Serbs is such that if they are attacked, they become very resentful of the attackers and foreign countries. The regime can use this."
He recognizes the value of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. "I am against collective guilt. A court trial for war criminals is essential for confidence building and the reconstruction of democracy. It would be fair first to bring Milosevic, Tudjman and Izetbegovic to the Hague Court, then to investigate the responsibility of their subordinates."
As a monk, Fr. Sava epitomizes Serbian Orthodoxy, but his peaceful approach to the Kosovo problem hasn't won him any friends in the Serb government. President Slobodan Milosevic recently refused to receive Bishop Artemije.
The monastery is steeped in history. Built between 1327-35, Decani's lands used to stretch to portions of what is today northern Albania. Service books are the only contemporary objects in the church: a printout from Janjic's computer done in a 19th-century-style type font. The intricately painted church interior holds almost 10,000 painted figures. The icons represent the largest surviving Byzantine collection in history. Yet the monastery isn't focused on the past.
"While it's nice for monks to live in a medieval setting," Fr. Sava comments, "that does not mean we are prepared to accept a medieval mentality.
"What we have here is a wonderful history that is very important to the world. But there should be more democratization and integration of this country into the world. The greatest losers are all civilians." Fr. Sava hopes the monastery's beauty will help save Kosovo. "This church is so beautiful that people cannot bear to leave, Serbs and Albanians alike," he says.
Serb nationalists use Decani's past to prove Slavic influence in Kosovo, but Fr. Sava refuses to let his monastery be used as a tool of romanticized national ideas. "The church is and has been a guardian of the Serbian nation, but not in the narrow sense of 19th century nationalism," he says.
"Sadly, the spiritual side of Orthodoxy is not so well known among the Serb people now after 50 years of communism. You might be surprised to know that at our Sunday service of worship we have only about ten people from Decani in attendance. For the Serb, tradition is important, but there has been a secularization of tradition here just as in other parts of Europe, and that has taken man further from God."
"Who does this land belong to? Adam and Eve, that's who," says Fr. Sava. "It is enough to say that Serbs and Albanians lived for centuries on this land. We think that people should not look back to the past. They should go to the future and leave history behind, rather than use religion to get people on their side."
Asked what he would do if KLA guerrillas came to the monastery, he replies, "We'd open the door and ask them to have a cup of coffee."
And which side does God take in this conflict? "God is on the side of the suffering people."
-- by Jim Forest, based on various news articles forwarded by Fr. Sava plus correspondence with him.
Appeal from Kosovo
My name is Fr. Sava, a monk in Serbian Orthodox monastery in Decani [see pp 19-21]. With the blessing of Bishop Artemije, I am writing to you from Kosovo where many people are suffering and urgently need help. Our monastery is helping both Serb and Albanian refugees.
We try to preserve our monastery as the haven of peace, love and welcome for everyone, regardless of ethnicity or religion. Many in our neighborhood need food, clothing and medicine. Many of their homes have been destroyed in fighting and some people with their children still live under plastic coverings. We want to help them, but the resources of our monastery are poor and with great regret we cannot do as much as we want.
This is why I am humbly writing to you, begging you to help us in our efforts. From the money you collect we can buy food and medicine and all that the poor people need.
I thank you in advance and humbly ask your holy prayers.
Send your donations to: Decani Monastery Relief Fund, c/o Veljko Sikirica, 5518 Massachusetts Ave., Bethesda, MD 20816 USA.