Religious aspects of the
Yugoslavia - Kosovo conflict
"...the peace negotiations between the Orthodox [Christian]
Serbs, the Catholic Croats and the Muslim Bosnians had collapsed again. And there is no
doubt that the religions that are so involved here had neglected in the period of more
than forty years since the Second World War to engage in mourning, honestly confess the
crimes which had been committed by all sides in the course of the centuries, and ask one
another for mutual forgiveness....I think there can be no peace among the nations without
peace among the religions!" Hans Küng and Karl-Josef
Kuschel, commenting in 1993 on conflict within the former Yugoslavia. 1 Although
this quotation refers to Bosnia, not Kosovo, the principle is the same: a missed
opportunity in the past and religious intolerance in the present.
"Ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant" (Where they
create a wasteland, they call it peace.) Tacitus (historian, ancient Rome)
Kosovo was a province of the Federal Republic of
Yugoslavia. The main players in its recent war were the government, army and militias of Yugoslavia, NATO,
and the Kosovo Liberation Army. The Presbyterian Church (USA) stated in
1999-APR that the main victims were the people of Kosovo who
"at a scale unknown in Europe since the end of World War II. These
reports have become so numerous and so consistent that it is difficult not to give them
credence...If, as it now appears, genocide is taking place in Kosovo, it must stop...No
person in Kosovo or anywhere else should be forced to become a refugee merely because he
or she belongs to one ethnic group or one religious tradition."
At its core, the conflict was largely a religious one:
"...religious identity has been present constantly in
the antagonisms that have fragmented the Balkans for centuries - setting
neighbor against neighbor, Muslims against Orthodox Christians, and Orthodox
Christians against Western Christians..." 20
Precise data is impossible to obtain. The
religious affiliation of the approximately 1.9 million residents of Kosovo, includes
on the order of:
Muslims: 1.6 million
Serbian Orthodox: 150,000
Roma and Ashkali: There once numbered on the order of 150,000 people. However, many have been forced out of the country 30,31
Roman Catholics: 60,000
Was the Kosovo crisis an ethnic conflict or a religious conflict?
There have been a series of struggles for independence during the 1990's in the area
once covered by the country of Yugoslavia: This series started in 1990 in Slovenia; 1991 in
Croatia; 1992 in Bosnia Herzegovina. Each of these conflicts have often been described as
an "ethnic conflict." In reality, the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and
Muslims in those countries share a common Slavic ethnic origin. They view themselves today
as distinct peoples, largely because of their different religious heritages.
Peter Black, senior historian at the United States Holocaust Museum commented:
"In the Balkans, religious identification became part of national identity, as
expressed through language and the communication of the national myth. Thus, being
Orthodox is part of being Serbian." 20
In contrast, people in North America consider religion mainly as part of their
personal/family identity. Because of the U.S. Constitution's
First Amendment, and the
separation of church and state which it specifies, Americans don't have a single faith
group associated with their feelings of nationalism. As Peter Black commented "being
Catholic or Orthodox or Muslim isn't part of our American identity." Canada's
history is somewhat different. In the past, the French majority in Quebec had strongly
identified their culture with Roman Catholicism. This largely ended in the 1960's, during
the "quiet revolution" when there was a massive collapse in the influence of
the Catholic church.
Unlike the rest of the former Yugoslavia, the Kosovo conflict had
both ethnic and religious components. Before the recent exterminations and
forced "ethnic cleansing," 90% of the population of Kosovo were ethnic
Albanians. These are descendants of the ancient Illyrian tribes who occupied this area
since before the Roman Empire. Their language is unrelated to all other languages in the
area; they are now mainly Muslim.
So, the Kosovo conflict was fueled by differences of:
Ethnicity: between Serbs, of Slavic origin, and ethnic Albanians who
are Illyrian in origin.
Religion: between Serbs, who are almost entirely followers of the
Serbian Orthodox Church, and non-Serbs, who are overwhelmingly followers of Islam, and
Roman Catholicism. There is also a minority of ethnic Albanians who follow the Albanian
Orthodox Church. However, there would be no significant friction, on religious grounds,
between Albanian and Serbian Orthodoxy.
As in all conflicts involving ethnicity, religion, national aspirations, economics,
etc., there was no single cause of the Kosovo war. However, in our opinion, it is not much
of an over-simplification to view the war in Kosovo as largely a religious conflict
Serbs who overwhelmingly belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church,
Ethnic Albanians who are mainly Muslims, and
A Roman Catholic minority.
Current religious/ethnic makeup of the former Yugoslavia:
The data below shows how closely the ethnic division in each country matches the
Republic of Slovenia:
96% Roman Catholic, 1% Muslim, 3% other.
91% Slovene; 3% Croat
Republic of Croatia:
77% Roman Catholic; 11% Serbian Orthodox
78% Croat,12% Serbian
Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina:
40% Muslim, 31% Serbian Orthodox, 15% Roman Catholic
40% Serbian, 38% Muslim, 22% Croat
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (including Kosovo, and its refugees):
65% Serbian Orthodox, 19% Muslim, 4% Roman Catholic, 1% Protestant, 11% other
63% Serbian, 14% Albanian 6% Montenegrin, 4% Hungarian, 13% other
81% Muslims, 10% Serbian Orthodox, 9% Roman Catholics
90% Albanians, 10% Serbs, 3% Roma (Gypsies), 1.5% Turks
The above data is believed to be accurate in late 1998. The percentage of
Serbs left in the province as of 1999-JUL is probably slightly under 5%.
Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM):
67% Eastern Orthodox, 30% Muslim
65% Macedonian, 22% Albanian
A brief recent history of Yugoslavia:
Over the past millennium, Yugoslavia straddled the
borders of three faith groups: Islam, Orthodox Christianity, and Roman Catholicism. An essay is available which describes the history of Yugoslavia
and surrounding area.
Massive atrocities were committed
during World War II by the Ustaša regime, the
Independent State of Croatia. It was established in power by the German
Nazis during World War II. Up to a million Serbs, Jews, Roma, Muslims,
Communists and other non-Catholics were exterminated by the state. The fascists' goals
were to convert Croatia into a pure Croatian and Roman Catholic independent
country. Memories of this genocide were a major
cause of the recent violence.
During the Communist dictatorship of Yugoslavia after World War II, Tito angered the
Serbs by granting autonomy to the northeastern province of Vojvodina and the southern
province of Kosovo in 1974.
Yugoslavia had been gradually disintegrating since the death of Tito. The country lost
much of its territory and population during the 1990's as Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and
Bosnia-Herzegovina achieved independence. As of 1999-JUL, Yugoslavia consisted of only four
provinces: Vojvodina, Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Montenegro had a large
degree of local autonomy.
A poorly-equipped militia in Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army, actively
fought for independence from the Yugoslavian government. They were considered by the
Albanians in Kosovo to be freedom fighters; the Serbs view them as simple terrorists.
The battle was not simply between the Yugoslav army and Kosovo citizens in the KLA.
Yugoslav militias were active. Many of the KLA fighters are from the adjacent
country of Albania. Some believe that soldiers have come from other countries as
According to Catholic World News, "most of the army's strength has
come from abroad - primarily from Albania, but also from Yemen and Saudi Arabia."
One source reports that some mercenaries from Russia had joined the Serb forces.
A "contact group," consisting of U.S. and many European countries,
brokered the Rambouillet Peace Accord for Kosovo. It was unsatisfactory to both sides:
The Serbs objected to giving Kosovo autonomy, and to allowing NATO troops to enter the
province and maintain peace.
The ethnic Albanians in Kosovo objected to the accord because it did not grant them
The representatives of the KLA signed the peace accord, after considerable pressure. The
government of Yugoslavia refused to sign the agreement.
NATO attacked Yugoslavia with air power in an attempt to force the Yugoslav government
to accept the agreement. By early 1999-APR, the goal of NATO appeared to shift to the
attaining of full independence for Kosovo. Widespread assaults, ethnic cleansing, rapes
and murders of ethnic Albanian civilians by the Serbian army and militia, which had
started long before NATO bombing began, accelerated. Hundreds of thousands were forced to
flee the province to prevent being exterminated. It probably became impossible for the Muslim
population of Kosovo to accept any form of future association with the Yugoslavian
government. Full independence was the only feasible ultimate option.
Following a multi-century tradition in the area, the Government of Yugoslavia proposed
a cease fire during the week of 1999-APR-4, to extend over the Eastern Orthodox
celebration of Easter on APR-11. A small group of Orthodox Christians in the U.S. took out
a full-page ad in the New York Times which urged a temporary bombing cease-fire over
Easter. Although the bombing was reduced temporarily, a complete cessation was rejected by
NATO. This decision had a profound psychological and spiritual impact on the
Serbians. "...by bombing the Serbs during the Orthodox Easter--just as the Nazis
did in 1941-- [NATO]... played into a view held by some Serbs that NATO is a force of
Western Christianity attempting to crush the Eastern Orthodox underdog." AsFather
Alex Karloutsos, an Orthodox priest in New York, said: "It really comes
down to a war between Eastern and Western Christianity."
NATO was ultimately successful in 1999-JUN in reaching an agreement with the Yugoslav
Withdraw its Serb troops, militias, police and secret police;
Allow a NATO-led peacekeeping force to enter Kosovo and
To allow the ethnic Albanians to return to their homeland.
This seems to have induced many among the small minority of Serbian residents in Kosovo to
leave the province, out of fear for their lives.
The Serbians' tie with Kosovo:
There is great, largely untapped, mineral wealth in Kosovo. But that is not the main
motivation for the present conflict. Kosovo is "the crucible in which Serb
nationalism was forged in a famous battle fought more than 600 years ago...its memory has
been kept alive by Serb nationalists down the centuries." 3It is a type of holy land. Many historic Serbian Orthodox Christian churches,
monasteries and gravesites are located there.
Kosovo is valued by the Serbs much as:
Jerusalem is by the Palestinians;
Jerusalem and Masada are by the Jews
Bunker Hill, Independence Hall and Arlington Cemetery are by Americans.
The Rev. Blastko Taraklis, "a Serbian Orthodox
priest in Mission Viejo who keeps in close touch with the monks and nuns at the ancient
Decani monastery in Kosovo" said "We cannot give up Kosovo, because it
is the Serbian Jerusalem. The birthright of the Serbian Orthodox Church is in Kosovo and
must remain there as part of Serbia."
Carl Raschke, a religious studies professor from the University of Denver, commented:
"Kosovo is the detonator for all the passions, paranoia, fears and
fight-to-the-death romanticism that has been a force in the Serb consciousness for
centuries." 3 According to Raschke, the Serbs looked
upon the present conflict over Kosovo as "a kind of final battle for their
national identity...The Serbs are likely to let the country be destroyed before they give
it up." Dennis Sandole of George Mason University in Virginia disagrees. He
commented that if Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic "...lets the bombing go on too long, the people could
come to associate him with the destruction of the nation. Then he might find himself
hanging from the nearest lamp-post."
Following the occupation of Kosovo by NATO and a small number of Russian
peacekeepers, popular opposition to the Milosevic regime in Serbia became organized. The U.S. CIA
became involved in de-stabilizing the
government of Yugoslavia. The regime was ultimately overthrown.
Did the Serbs commit genocide?
Civilian populations are increasingly being targeted during recent civil wars. However,
atrocities must match certain specific criteria before they are considered genocide. The Convention
on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as:
"... certain acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or
in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group as such. The
proscribed acts include killings, causing serious bodily or mental harm,
imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, forcibly
transferring its children to another group, or deliberately inflicting on
the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its destruction in
whole or in part." 4
Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia during the mid 1990s started as mass expulsions of
civilians. It escalated to include internment in concentration camps, mass executions,
rapes, etc. There was a clear policy by the Serbs "to exterminate Muslim Bosnians
as a group..." 4Their actions were generally
considered to be genocide. There is a general consensus that widespread atrocities were
also committed by the Muslims and the Croats (largely Roman Catholic). But the level of
their war crimes did not reach genocidal proportions.
There have been allegations that the Serbs were also engaged in genocide in Kosovo
before and during the NATO bombing. Media correspondents and
human rights investigators conducted large-scale interviews of Kosovar refugees.
The data collected show that the Geneva Conventions concerning civilians had
been ignored and that extremely serious war crimes were perpetrated by the
Yugoslavian army, police and militias. There appeared to be a consensus of human rights
investigators that the quantity and type of documented atrocities proved that genocide
had been committed by the Yugoslavian government against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
This belief was confirmed as the NATO forces occupied Kosovo. Mass graves were
located and were systematically examined by forensic specialists. Ethnic Albainians came out of hiding with horrendous stories to tell. In excess of
11,000 murders were reported to authorities. According to a report by the U.N.'s
chief prosecutor in Yugoslavia, Carla Del Ponte, on 1999-NOV-10, 2,108 complete
corpses and an unknown but large number of incomplete bodies were found. 29
There certainly were mass crimes against humanity in Kosovo. Whether the
situation would qualify for the term "genocide" depends on one's
precise definition of the term.
Religious comments about the war in Kosovo:
Christians were divided over how to resolve the conflict. Some Evangelicals, other
Protestants and Roman Catholics support edthe bombing as the only way to eventually bring
peace. Many Orthodox Christian leaders supported the Serbian Orthodox church in asking for a
cease fire. Many faith groups concentrated on the plight of the refugees, and
taking an active position on the war itself. The secular peace movement was
1998-MAY-19: Pax Christi is a Roman Catholic peace movement.
Its Italian branch called for international action in Kosovo. "A temporary
solution of one or two decades, would provide the immediate opportunity for increased
economic cooperation with and political integration into the international community. It
would enable the parties to build common ground for a final solution." 15
1999-MAR: A number of Roman Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, and Muslim
religious leaders met in Vienna in an attempt to forge a united stance against violence.
Father Leonid Kishovsky is an Orthodox priest from New York who was present at the
meeting. He reported "It was a very tense and challenging conversation that
nearly broke down. But they did manage to walk through this very painful dialogue and came
up with a common statement to step away from...violence and and seek a democratic
1999-APR-3: Word leaked out that the Yugoslav president, Slobodan
Milosevic, was on a sealed list of war criminals drawn up by the
International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
1999-APR-9: The Albanian Encouragement Project is a group of
about 70 foreign Evangelical Protestant agencies working with the local Albanian
Evangelical Alliance. Spokesperson Doug Mann believed that the immediate solution was
to bring NATO ground troops into Kosovo. They felt that the long range solution is more difficult. "We
can set up borders, we can guard borders with UN troops and maintain a semblance of peace,
but until hearts change and ethnic hatred ceases there is no long-term solution."
1999-APR-13: Charles Colson, head of the Prison Fellowship
ministry in the U.S. criticized NATO's refusal to agree to a cease-fire requested by the
Serb President, Slobodan Milosevic during the Orthodox Christian Easter. "NATO's
actions show how completely tone-deaf Western governing elites have become on the subject
of religion -- or at least Christianity." Colson contrasted the Kosovo situation
with that of the 1998 decision to cease bombing in Iraq during Ramadan. 12,13
1999-APR-14: Many Orthodox Christian leaders called for a cease-fire in
The Commission of the Orthodox Church predicted that further escalation of the
war may have "unforeseeable, terrible consequences." They noted that
both Evangelical and Roman Catholic leaders in Germany have supported the bombing in
Archbishop Spyridon, primate of the Greek Orthodox church in America said:
"The further escalation of this conflict can only serve to exacerbate the human
tragedy of violence, displacement and the inevitable hatreds that will be spawned by the
forces of death and destruction."
In a joint effort, the World Council of Churches, the Conference of
European Churches, the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance
of Reformed Churches called on Christians and Christian Churches to observe an
international day of prayer on 1999-MAY-16 for peace and reconciliation
in the Balkans. 24These four groups had the opportunity to
make a major positive contribution to religious tolerance by involving other than
Protestant Christian groups in this day of prayer. Unfortunately, they decided to not
involve the three main religious groups that are at least partly responsible for the
terror and crisis in the Balkans: the Serbian Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church,
1999-MAY-27: Yugoslav President Slobodon Milosevic and four others
were indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for
the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This is the first time a sitting head of
state had been formally accused of crimes against humanity. 26
1999-JUN-9: An agreement was reached between NATO and
Yugoslav military leaders. The bombing was suspended. This lead to the
replacement of Yugoslav forces from Kosovo with international peacekeepers
and the return of ethnic Albanian refugees. Two less obvious results of the
The departure into Serbia of many of the Serbs who had been living in
An unknown number of ethnic Albainian hostages were taken by Yugoslav
forces from Kosovo to Serbia.
1999-JUN-11: CNN reported that there were about "860,000 refugees"
who had fled Kosovo. "The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has
estimated that at least 350,000 houses in Kosovo have been seriously damaged.
The U.N. Children's Fund says massive damage was inflicted on hospitals, clinics
and schools, and that doctors, nurses and teachers are in severely short supply."
1999-JUN-16: Leaders of the Serbian Orthodox Church
for the resignation of President Slobodan Milosevic and his government. They wanted a new
President and government that is acceptable to the world community.
1999-OCT: By this time, 76 Serbian Orthodox shrines and
churches had been destroyed or desecrated in Kosovo. 32
2000-OCT: Milosevic suffered an electoral defeat . His
regime was overthrown.
2001-APR-1: Milosevic was
arrested. He was later transported to the Hague to be tried by the
International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as a war
2002-JAN-30: Milosevic's trial began.
2004-MAR-17 to 19: Three Serbian children drowned accidentally in
Kosovo. A rumor spread that they had been chased into a river by four
Albanian children. The rumor was false. In spite of a statement from the
U.N. Mission that no Albanians were involved, tens of thousands of Albanians
attacked Serbs and Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries. There are
strong indications that the attack was carefully planned in advance.
Fourteen religious structures were totally destroyed; some dated back to the
12th century. The National Review described it as "Kristallnacht
in Kosovo" -- a reference to the massive Nazi attack on Jewish property
in Germany and Austria on 1938-NOV-9 to 10. 36
2005-MAR-12: Slobodan Milosevic died of an apparent heart attack
during 2006-MAR while in prison near the end of his four year trial on
multiple counts crimes against humanity.
2005-MAR-14: The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)
"....it is now more than ever crucial that the international
community bring other indicted war criminals to justice in order to
bring about a much-needed process of truth and reconciliation....The
European Union has given the Serbian government until April to hand over
Ratko Mladic, military leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95
war, who is accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and other war
crimes for the siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of thousands of Muslim
men and boys around Srebrenica in July 1995. The Bosnian Serbs' wartime
political leader, Radovan Karadic, also has yet to surrender to the
Hague tribunal. Both men have been fugitives for more than 10 years.
Capturing and trying Mladic and Karadic should be an immediate priority
of the international community in order to deliver long overdue justice
that is crucial in order to begin the heal the scars faced by those who
witnessed the Balkan genocide firsthand." 35
Yahoo! News maintains full coverage of the Kosovo aftermath. 27
The situation as of early 2006:
Kosovo has been under United Nations administration since 1999, when NATO
drove out Yugoslav troops. The United National Interim Administration Mission
in Kosovo (UNMIK) reported that on 2006-FEB-22, the first round of direct
negotiations between delegations from Kosovo and Serbia were concluded with some
progress having been made over the future status of Kosovo.
UNMIK reported on 2006-MAR-06:
"Independence and autonomy are among options that have
been mentioned for the province, where Albanians outnumber Serbs and others
by 9 to 1. Serbia rejects independence. Kosovo’s Serbs have been boycotting
the province’s provisional institutions."
"[UN Special Envoy Martti] Ahtisaari confirmed that
another meeting on decentralization would be held in the Austrian capital on
17 March, focusing on local financing and inter-municipal cooperation and
relationships, adding that he was using 'a bottom-up approach,' in other
words starting the process by dealing with practical and 'status-neutral'
" 'Apart from decentralization, we will run parallel
discussions on cultural and religious heritage, minority rights and
economy', he said."
"He appealed to Serbian leaders to encourage
Kosovo Serb leaders to participate in the province’s institutions. 'If you
people don’t participate, it will be very difficult for any administration
to create conditions where people can live together,' he told them during
his visit to the province. 34
In theory, Kosovo remains a
province of Serbia. However, with the area occupied by NATO peacekeepers, and
administered by the United Nations, the term "province" is almost meaningless.
There is strong support among the Muslim majority for complete independence.
KosovoNews commented on 2006-MAR-1:
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that Kosovo's movement towards
independence is 'almost inevitable,' and said Serbia may have to accept that
Serbian Orthodox minority generally refuses to acknowledge independence as
an option. Withdrawal of NATO troops, political independence for Kosovo, and
long-term peace and stability may well take decades to accomplish.
Kosovo declares independence:
On 2008-FEB-17, Kosovo's parliament gave unanimous approval to a unilateral
declaration of independence. Prime Minister Hashim Thaci declared Kosovo to be
"proud, independent and free." He described it also as "democratic,
secular and multi-cultural." Serbia has instructed Serbs in Kosovo to reject
succession, and has enacted countermeasures against the new state. The U.S.,
Canada, and most European countries are expected to recognize Kosovo's
Russia opposes the development, probably for two reasons: it might motivate
independence-minded movements in their country to demand independence. Also
Russia and Serbia are linked by a common Orthodox Christian faith.
Iran has announced its opposition, perhaps because Kosovo is a
predominately Muslim state that intends to be secular.
Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in
Kosovo called for violence. He said:
"Serbia should buy stare-of-the=art weapons from Russia and other
countries and call on Russia to send volunteers and establish a military
presence in Serbia."
For the immediate future, Kosovo will be under the control of UN
administrators and 16,000 NATO troops. Control will transition to a 1,800 member
European Union-led mission by mid 2008. 37,38
News of the Kosovo crisis, updated daily, can be found at Kosova Info: http://www.kosovainfo.com/ENGLISH.htm
Although written from a pro-LDK stance, most of the articles are reprints from
American, UN and human rights sources.
"Latimes.com special reports: Nato Crisis in Yugoslavia" at: http://www.latimes.com/HOME/NEWS/REPORTS/YUGO/
The site has "hourly updates, all [LA] Times stories since NATO launched its
attack, video clips, information on how to help the refugees, a primer on the conflict and
access to our discussion group."
"Radio B92 Banned," concerns an independent Serbian radio
station from Belgrade, Yugoslavia. It promoted peace, democracy and reconciliation. It was
closed down by the Yugoslavian government. But it was reborn on the Internet. See: http://www.b92.org.
An online data base of Kosovan refugees is available at: http://www.refugjat.org/ They hope to help reunite
displaced refugees who have lost track of each other.
J. Van Marter, "World Christian bodies call for Day of Prayer for the
Balkans," PCUSA News release, #99186, 1999-MAY-13.
"Elderly Serb civilian brutally beaten by KLA soldiers,"
Kosovo Human Rights Flash #47, Human Rights Watch, 1999-JUN-18.