Kosovo Ministry of Culture Reconstructs Orthodox Church at Gornje Vinarce as ‘Catholic’ Without Consulting Serbian Church
In its campaign of appropriation of the material and spiritual heritage of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) in Kosovo, the Ministry of Culture from Priština has self-initiatively begun “a reconstruction” of the Orthodox cemetery church in the village of Gornje Vinarce, seven kilometres west of Mitrovica. This information was posted on the City of Mitrovica’s Facebook page. Besides not contacting the SOC regarding the reconstruction, the Ministry has taken a further step by proclaiming this church “Catholic,” clearly intending to take over the heritage of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The church, purportedly named “Catholic Church in Gornje Vinarce,” has been listed as a protected monument by the Ministry of Culture in Pristina since 2016. According to an online text citing ministry sources, the church’s stone slab roof has been repaired, a sidewalk has been built, and the interior has been plastered, and temporary door installed. In front of the church, a sign with a logo of the Kosovo Ministry of Culture mentions the name “Catholic Church in Vinarce”, listing two companies carrying out the work, which is reportedly nearing completion.
For public awareness, this Orthodox church has existed since the 14th century in a village that was then purely Serbian, with 15 Serbian households, as recorded in a Ottoman census of Isa-beg Ishaković in 1455, hortly after the conquest of Kosovo in the area. A document published by the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo in 1964, with other Ottoman censuses of that time, shows the demographics at that time. The census mentions vineyards (vinari in Serbian mean wine-makers) in this village, which is apparently how it got its name. The church’s architectural structure clearly shows it resembles cemetery chapels from the 14th-15th centuries, with an altar apse and a niche for proskomide, typical of Orthodox Christian tradition. In the village, no presence of a Roman Catholic community is mentioned, and as far as the Raška-Prizren Diocese is aware, the Roman Catholic diocese has never used this church, nor does it have any written data or material evidence of its ownership in history.
Until 1999, the church was regularly used by Serb Orthodox believers who gathered here on the first Friday after Easter, as the church was dedicated to the “Life-giving Spring,” further evidenced by a nearby spring and a cistern. After the expulsion of the Serbian population in 1999, the church in Gornje Vinarce was desecrated, burned, graffitied, and its entrance doors broken. Unfortunately, this is the state of many SOC churches that were damaged or destroyed by Kosovo Albanian extremists during the war in 1998-1999. This is further testimony that the church was considered Serbian by the local Albanian population, otherwise it would not have been desecrated and burned, which is the case with many other churches and monasteries that were attacked and are now (paradoxically) being proclaimed “Albanian churches” in the media or through the Ministry in Pristina.
According to earlier data from the Raška-Prizren Diocese archives, during the communist Yugoslav period, the church was attacked and devastated in 1972 when a group of local Albanian villagers broke the doors and windows and demolished the interior of the church, trying to set it on fire.
The Raška-Prizren Diocese expresses the strongest protest against the process, which obviously shows the clear intent of the Kosovo authorities to “reconstruct” churches that were demolished or damaged by Albanian extremists without any consultation with the Church to which these holy sites belong and to completely change their identity, despite existing historical testimonies.
The Diocese will inform international representatives and organizations dealing with religious rights and the protection of cultural heritage about this latest incident, as Kosovo institutions no longer respond to SOC complaints and do not fulfill their legal obligations towards our Church, even in the case of existing rulings of the highest Kosovo courts. Our Diocese does not oppose the reconstruction of its holy sites, many of which are still in ruins after being destroyed by Kosovo Albanian extremists in 1998-1999 but strongly opposes the use of alleged reconstruction as a pretext to take over Serbian Orthodox cultural and religious heritage and change identity for the sake of historical revisionism. The reconstruction of Serbian churches destroyed after the March Pogrom in 2004 was done under the supervision of the Council of Europe, which guaranteed the protection of SOC rights.
The first part of the strategy of Albanization of this region was the expulsion of the Serbian population, particluarly after the war in 1999 when (according to UNHCR data) about 200,000 Serbs and non-Albanians were forced to flee from Kosovo, which was followed by the systematic destruction of Serbian Orthodox churches and cemeteries to erase all traces of Serbian historical existence. Now, contrary to all norms and Kosovo laws, the goal of Kosovo Albanian institutions is to “reconstruct” on their own terms these churches by changing their identity. Such behavior of Kosovo institutions is the main reason for the impossibility of normal cooperation of the SOC with institutions in Pristina that openly work to deny our history, identity, and heritage, all with the aim of creating an ethnically pure Albanian territory.
Therefore, we call on international representatives to respond to these incidents and take measures to prevent future violence against our churches. Deliberate changes in the identity of churches directly provoke ethnic and religious intolerance and are punishable under Kosovo laws, causing ethnic and religious tensions and hindering the calming of the situation, which has significantly worsened, especially in recent years.
Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Raška and Prizren
24 December 2023
*Photos taken from the Facebook page of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Kosovo