The eight nuns of a Serbian Orthodox monastery, Sokolica, in religiously polarized Kosovo have decided to learn Albanian so they can talk to Albanian Muslims who come to pray at an ancient statue of the Virgin Mary.
Muslims from all over Kosovo flock to the Sokolica monastery because they believe its 14th-century sculpture of the Sokolika Virgin can cure deaf-mute children and help childless couples become pregnant. The famous sculpture is adorned with gold necklaces, bracelets and strings of pearls from grateful pilgrims, both Christian and Muslim. "It cures not only their people but also our people," said a Muslim neighbor.
The monastery, surrounded by the Muslim village of Boletin, is located in the mountains that overlook the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.
"When Muslims ask how to pray, we tell them to pray in their own language and in the way they are taught to," the 67-year-old head of the monastery, Mother Makarija, told Agence France Presse. "We let them praise their Allah as we do our God."
"Our door is open for all who come, both Christian and Muslims. If Muslims think our sacred sculpture can help them, then they are welcome," said Mother Makarija.
"But speaking the languages of neighbors is a must," she said. "I don't want our sisters to talk to the neighbors and Albanians who visit the monastery in English but in Albanian. I am always looking for [Albanian] textbooks. I may be too old for it but my nuns must learn Albanian." (The abbess speaks Serbian, English, German and Greek.)
Local villagers tell how the abbess braved heavy fighting during the war to take a pregnant Boletin woman to deliver her baby at a Serbian hospital in Mitrovica. "It was dangerous even for her, despite the fact that she was a nun," said Besim Boletini, who lives next door to the monastery.
Muslim villager Mustafa Kelmendi, 67, said Mother Makarija had saved his son Basri from Serb paramilitaries twice. "The war brought chaos ... However she did not allow Serb forces to stay in the convent even when fighting was going on in the area."
The nuns are well known as fresco painters and iconographers. "That is our main income," said Mother Makarija.