The Common Good
July-August 1999

Not the Church of Ethnic Cleansing

by Jim Forest | July-August 1999

Contrary to popular belief, the Serbian Orthodox church has a history of resisting ultra-nationalism.

Yugoslav’s long-term leader Tito was extraordinarily successful in his 35-year struggle to marginalize the Orthodox Church. Throughout the Tito era, it was a major disadvantage to put one’s toe in the church door. Those who wanted to advance in life had to join the Communist Party, in which atheism was obligatory. Tito died in 1980, but many of his social policies survived, including the view that religion belonged to the past.

Further complicating the problem of the church’s role in post-Tito Serbia is that the church, however crippled by past oppression, is the only institution that still incarnates Serbian identity. This has led Serbian nationalists, in many cases atheists, to value the church for "cultural" reasons even while regarding its views on ethical and political principles as irrelevant.

Yet the direction of the church’s hierarchy, while wanting to preserve all that is good in Serbian identity and tradition, has been to oppose ultra-nationalism and to speak out clearly, even at personal risk, against all that Milosevic and others like him represent.

The church’s pastors see the neglect of spiritual life as being at the heart of the nation’s crisis. "For 60 years under communism, atheism was the official religion," Bishop Lavrentije of Sabac-Valjevo explained in a press interview in 1995. "For 50 years priests were forbidden from going into schools and from visiting the army. People were educated without any contact with belief in God, and were taught that there was no soul. Those generations [who received an atheist education] are now soldiers. That is the reason for genocide. As one philosopher said, ‘If you take away God from man, man becomes the strongest animal.’"

One hears a similar directness on controversial issues from Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle. When I first met him in 1994, I asked about the civil war that was then raging in Bosnia. He responded that the blame must be shared among Serbs along with everyone else—the governments of the several republics of former Yugoslavia plus the rest of Europe and the United States. In such a situation, the church "must condemn all atrocities that are committed, no matter what the faith or origin of the person committing them may be. No sin committed by one person justifies a sin committed by another. We will all face the Last Judgment together where each of us must answer for his sins. No one can justify his sins by saying someone else is guilty of a crime."

The basic principle was summed up in a statement issued by the Serbian bishops on the eve of NATO bombing: "The way of nonviolence and cooperation is the only way blessed by God."

The bishop chiefly responsible for recent church efforts on behalf of Kosovo, Bishop Artemije, has made five trips to Washington and traveled repeatedly to European capitals in his efforts to convince the West that it was mistaken in its long-running support of Milosevic. Artemije argued that NATO intervention would strengthen the Milosevic regime—indeed it has—and be a major setback for the democratic opposition in Serbia, which in turn would delay democratization, a precondition for peace in the Balkan region. "In the aftermath of a NATO intervention, whether in the form of a NATO occupation of Kosovo or an air campaign against Serbia, it is certain that the Milosevic regime would take decisive and drastic action against its domestic opponents. A NATO intervention in Kosovo would risk setting back the cause of democracy in Serbia and in the Balkans for years to come."

On behalf of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Artemije proposed a solution inspired by the Swiss example—that Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians each be granted the right to self-administration in rural areas in which they constitute relative or absolute majorities with economic, judiciary, and political links to Serbia, while in major cities a system of multi-ethnic rule be adopted in which political power is shared through a two-chamber assembly.

One of the other well-known but unheeded voices of the Serbian Orthodox Church has been that of Father Sava Janjic, assistant abbot of the Decani Monastery in western Kosovo, a place of refuge for many in the region and a center of church-backed relief work for all segments of the population, whether Christian, Muslim, or no faith at all.

When Father Sava arrived to deliver aid packages in the war-ravaged village of Crnobreg last November, he was dismayed to discover the sign of the cross had been painted on many walls and gates—clearly the work of Serbian security forces who often make use of "the Serbian cross" in the fight against ethnic Albanian separatists.

"It was an abuse because the cross was being used as a symbol of hate," he said. "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."

JIM FOREST is secretary of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and author of many books, most recently

The Ladder of the Beatitudes (Orbis Books, 1999). This article is excerpted from "The Serbian Orthodox Church: Not the Chaplain of Ethnic Cleansing," published in Touchstone, May/June 1999. See the Orthodox Peace Fellowship Web site (www.incommunion.org/nato.htm) for more information on the Orthodox Church’s response to the present war.
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