Accessed 15 June 1999
HOW SERBS USED MONASTERIES
TO ENTICE ETHNIC HATRED
By Michael Sells
(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 Kosova, 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 Kosova -- 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 Kosova'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 Kosova. The
same charges were repeated in the famous "Memorandum" written by Serbian
intellectuals attacking the Yugoslav constitution and the autonomy of Kosova. 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 Kosova, 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 Kosova 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 Kosova 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 Kosova, 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 Kosova'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 Kosova 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) 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
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 Kosova
survived intact, even as they had survived centuries of Ottoman rule and Albanian
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 Kosova 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 the represented to
foment hate and violence, they desecrated a great Serbian heritage that deserves better.
All sacral sites in Kosova 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