By Michael Sells
June 1, 1999

Michael Sells is the author of "The Bridge Betrayed: Religion and Genocide in Bosnia," second edition, 1998. He is professor of comparative religions at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

Members of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Yugoslav government are making a grave allegation. They claim that NATO is bombing the great Serbian Orthodox monasteries dating to the medieval Serb kingdoms. The Web site of the Belgrade government's Institute for the Protection of Cultural Monuments of Serbia shows pictures of monasteries allegedly damaged by NATO strikes and includes two black spaces with the word" destroyed" ominously written across them. The Web page of the Serbian Orthodox Church, entitled "The Bombing of Serbian Shrines," is even more provocative. The site features a map of the major Serbian shrines in Kosovo, with icons of bomb blasts over each of them, as if NATO's bombs were falling directly upon them. The religious and historical importance of the monasteries in Kosovo - an area called by some "the Serb Jerusalem" - gives such claims a powerful impact, especially in countries with large Orthodox Christian populations. In addition, threats to sacred sites symbolize threats to the existence of the people who value them.

Yet these Web sites offer no evidence to justify the "destroyed" labels or the title "The Bombing of Serbian Shrines." The sites show pictures of the monuments before the alleged destruction, but no images of the damage they claim was inflicted by NATO - except for items like masonry cracks that could have been caused by anything. Serbian authorities have not been shy about showing graphic details of civilian destruction wrought by misguided NATO bombs. If NATO were bombing the monasteries, images of the blasted ruins would be broadcast around the world.

These new allegations against NATO are ominously similar to Serb nationalists' charges in 1986 that Kosovar Albanians were destroying the monasteries. This charge was combined with other inflammatory allegations that Kosovar Albanians were illegal immigrants who should be expelled; that Albanians were using their high birth rate as a tool to commit" demographic genocide" against Kosovo's Serb minority; and that they were carrying out widespread rapes of Serb women. In 1986, Serbian Orthodox bishops repeated these allegations and charged that genocide was being carried out against Serbs in Kosovo. The same charges were repeated in the famous "Memorandum" written by Serbian intellectuals attacking the Yugoslav constitution and the autonomy of Kosovo. In this inflamed environment, Slobodan Milosevic made his leap to power by promising he would protect the Serb people and their shrines against their enemies.

What was the truth of these frightening allegations? There were genuine grievances by both Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, and both groups felt threatened. But Serb independent journalists and human rights workers found the more inflammatory charges to be total fabrications. A study of police records in Kosovo showed only one rape of an ethnic Serb by an Albanian in an entire year. Similarly, the alleged destruction of Serb shrines turned out to involve isolated cases of vandalism, graffiti, and cutting of trees on church property - hate crimes, perhaps, but surely not the organized, genocidal annihilation that was claimed.

Yet the charge that Albanians were out to destroy Serb sacral heritage had a life independent of any evidence to the contrary. The charge fed into a mythologized history that presented the Ottoman Turks and native Balkan Muslims as obsessed with eradicating Serbs and Serbian sacred sites. Serb nationalists make this charge repeatedly - despite the survival of this magnificent heritage through five centuries of Ottoman rule amidst Albanian neighbors and despite the Ottoman record of supporting the Serbian Orthodox patriarchate and authorizing the building and repair of Serbian churches.

To understand the full power of the accusations of monastery destruction, we need to note the other symbols that were attached to the monasteries. The medieval Serb Prince Lazar was portrayed as a Christ figure and his death at the battle of Kosovo in 1389 was presented as the "Serbian Golgotha." Serb nationalists began accusing today's Balkan Muslims of having the blood of the Christ-prince Lazar on their hands. At the same time, the bones of Serbs killed by the Nazis and their Ustasha collaborators during World War II were ritually exhumed amid nationalist propaganda demonizing all Albanians, Slavic Muslims, and Croats as inherently genocidal. Mythic time (1389), historical memory (World War II), and false allegations of contemporary Albanian genocide all became symbolically attached to the monasteries.

For the momentous June 28, 1989, 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo, Lazar's relics were solemnly transported from monastery to monastery to arrive at the Gracanica monastery (one of the shrines now claimed to be under attack by NATO). A massive crowd viewed the unveiling of the relics at the monastery and then moved to the nearby battle site. There an even larger crowd of more than a million Serbs heard Slobodan Milosevic's belligerent speech sealing his plan to revoke Kosovo's autonomy. The symbols brought together with such ritual and theatric power were then instrumentalized through the purging of the Yugoslav army, government protection of extremist paramilitary groups, and media propaganda. In a mass psychology of fear and rage, Serbian society was radicalized. Serbia's most popular celebrity today is the indicted war-criminal Arkan, and its most popular politician is Vojislav Seselj, an open advocate of the annihilation of Kosovar Albanians and all Balkan Muslims. At first the violence conceived in Kosovo was channeled into the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia.

In Bosnia, Serb militias - urged on by the allegations of destruction of Serb monasteries - annihilated non-Serb sacral sites. All mosques and other Muslim shrines (more than 1,400) in Serb-occupied areas were destroyed, including world-class masterpieces built in the 15th and 16th centuries. In some towns all the mosques were destroyed in a single night's coordinated dynamiting. The Ferhad Pasha Mosque (1583) in Banja Luka was re-dynamited three times, the rubble pulverized with jackhammers and trucked away to deny the surviving Muslim community a shard of its heritage. In the town of Foca, the 16th-century masterpiece known as the Colored Mosque and all other Muslim shrines were blown up, the sites turned into parking lots. When the new Serb nationalist mayors of Foca and Zvornik were asked why all the mosques had been destroyed, they responded that there never had been any mosques in those towns.

Where the Serb army could not occupy an area, they targeted cultural sites with shelling, burning the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo - with its priceless collection of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Slavic manuscripts - and the National Library, with more than a million volumes - the largest book burning in history. In three years Serb militias eradicated five centuries of Bosnian Muslim heritage and all evidence that Muslims and Serbs had shared a common civilization. Meanwhile, the Serbian monasteries of Kosovo survived intact, even as they had survived centuries of Ottoman rule and Albanian neighbors.

Now we hear similarly inflammatory charges that NATO is bombing Serbian monasteries. In all the talk about the monasteries, we tend to forget that the Albanian community has its own Muslim and Catholic sites. Muslim sites include mosques, madrasas (religious schools, often with manuscript libraries), tekkes (dervish lodges), turbes (mausoleums, frequently sites of pilgrimage), hammams (bath complexes for men and women), and bazaars (often built next to a mosque to support pious endowments). Many date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Kosovar refugees interviewed on the border offer consistent reports of having witnessed the destruction of mosques and shrines. In the case of Bosnia such reports turned out to be horrifyingly true.

The Belgrade regime insists that Serbian forces must remain in Kosovo in order to protect the monasteries. The Serbian monasteries survived five centuries without Milosevic's army and special police. But non-Serb peoples and monuments in the area have not fared well under Belgrade's "monument protection." Since 1986, Serb nationalists have manipulated concern for the shrines to motivate, justify, and implement "ethnic cleansing" and annihilation of centuries of non-Serb artistic and religious monuments. In exploiting Serbian monasteries and the Serbian heritage they represented to foment hate and violence, they desecrated a great Serbian heritage that deserves better.

All sacral sites in Kosovo should be protected by a multinational force that includes peacekeepers from countries with large Orthodox populations. UNESCO and other organizations should monitor them and catalogue any damages. Deliberate destruction of monuments should be prosecuted as a war crime in The Hague. As for Belgrade's army, its special police, and paramilitaries - the world has seen enough of their "protection of monuments."

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