NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, visits Visoki Dečani Monastery

His Grace Vicar Bishop Teodosije of Lipljan received today in Visoki Dečani Monastery NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), U.S. Admiral James Stavridis. Admiral Stavridis, who is of Greek and Orthodox descent, showed great interest in Visoki Dečani Monastery and the preservation of Serbian Orthodox holy shrines in Kosovo. In conversation with Admiral Stavridis, Bishop Teodosije emphasized the importance of the presence of international peacekeeping forces in Kosovo and Metohija, and added that it is especially important for the Serbian Orthodox Church that KFOR forces continue to provide security for eight of the most important Serbian holy shrines in the Province. Admiral Stavridis assured Bishop Teodosije that NATO will not take any further steps related to the protection of Serbian holy shrines without dialogue with Serbian Orthodox Church and that the concern of the SOC for security issues will be seriously taken into account.

Visiting Dečani Monastery with Admiral Stavridis were the KFOR Commander, German General Markus Bentler; Battle Group East commander, U.S. Brigadier General Alan Dorhman; and Battle Group West commander, Colonel Vincenzo Grasso (Italy), as well as members of the core team of Admiral Stavridis and the headquarters of the NATO alliance. Bishop Teodosije thanked Admiral Stavridis for the effort KFOR is investing in the protection of Serbian Orthodox holy shrines, adding that the Church appreciates the contribution of KFOR in the process of returns (especially in the Metohija enclaves) and the support troops regularly provide while protecting religious ceremonies in parts of Kosovo and Metohija where security is a problem.

In January Bishop Teodosije headed a delegation of the Serbian Orthodox Church which visited the political headquarters of the NATO alliance in Brussels, where he conveyed the concern of the Church because of what the Church sees as a premature reduction of NATO forces in Kosovo and appealed to NATO representatives that Orthodox holy shrines currently protected by KFOR should not be transferred to the jurisdiction of the Kosovo police because these are very important and sensitive buildings whose preservation is not only of general religious and cultural but also political significance for all those who want peace and stability in this part of the Balkans. The painful experiences of the SOC, particularly during March 2004 riots, as well as the attack on the Dečani Monastery in March 2007 showed that in Kosovo and Metohija there are still extremists who want to destroy the most valuable spiritual and cultural monuments, four of which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

At the meeting of ambassadors of NATO countries held June 29, 2009 the decision was made to begin the restructuring of KFOR forces at the beginning of 2010. The Serbian Orthodox Church was not informed of these plans until the end of 2009 when the Holy Synod of Bishops decided to go on a diplomatic mission and point out to the international community the possible risks that may arise from the process of reducing NATO forces. From 16,000 KFOR soldiers the number of peacekeeping forces was reduced to 10,000 by February of this year. According to Alliance plans in the next phase the number of troops is scheduled to be reduced to 6,500 soldiers, and then to 2,500 soldiers in 2012, although timeframes have not yet been completely determined. The combat organization of the peacekeeping forces was also changed and the multinational brigades were replaced by smaller organizational units – battle groups (East, West, North and South). Although the process of unfixing, i.e. discontinuation of a permanent military presence around 8 Orthodox holy shrines protected by KFOR, has not yet begun, NATO intends as a part of the general decrease in the number of KFOR soldiers to consider this issue selectively based on security assessments. The SOC delegation was told in Brussels, then in Berlin and Paris, that the process of unfixing SOC edifices needs to be previously approved by the ambassadors of the NATO Alliance, and that each individual case will be considered separately.

KFOR forces currently provide security for the following Serbian Orthodox monasteries: the Peć Patriarchate, Visoki Dečani, Gračanica, Devič, Holy Archangels, Gorioč, Zočište and Budisavci. These are the most important and the vulnerable monasteries, two of which were torched during the March 2004 Pogrom (Devič and Holy Archangels). All the monasteries except Gračanica are located in the particularly vulnerable, western part of the Province, Metohija or Drenica (Devič).