The SOC Diocese of Raška and Prizren responds to unfounded accusations of unauthorised restoration of its religious sites

On October 6th, Mr. Hajrulla Çeku, the Minister of Culture of Kosovo, sent a letter to Bishop Teodosije of Raška and Prizren, offering the Ministry’s evaluation and restoration of the damages at Banjska Monastery after the unfortunate events of September 24th. Minister Çeku publicized a facsimile of his letter on social network X on the same day, although the official letter only reached the Diocese on October 11th. Before a response could be made to the Minister’s letter, new accusations from the Ministry of Culture surfaced on the KOHA portal on October 12th. The Ministry claimed that the Diocese was allegedly renovating Banjska Monastery without authorisation from authorities Pristina.

Consequently, the Diocese is compelled to address the public again as there is evidently no sincere readiness of the Ministry for cooperation and normal communication.

Given that the damage to Banjska Monastery on September 24th was not inflicted on the church or historical section but involved a broken metal gate of recent origin and damages to the guest house outside the main monastery complex, necessitating locksmith and carpentry repairs, we deem it necessary to inform the public that the Diocese of Raška and Prizren has already secured the necessary funds for these repairs, thanks to a donation from the Hilandar Monastery Foundation, and that the damage will soon be repaired.

Protecting religious sites and cultural monuments is paramount, especially for our Church, which maintains these sites as active places of worship. Thus, it is utterly irresponsible to accuse the Church, which has made immense efforts to preserve its heritage from destruction and desecration in Kosovo and Metohija over the past 24 years, of allegedly being negligent towards what constitutes the foundation of our identity and survival amidst ongoing ethnic discrimination.

The protection of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) sites in Kosovo and Metohija has been specifically discussed and defined by Annex 5 of the Ahtisaari Plan, which the Government of Kosovo accepted with the obligation to incorporate these provisions into the new Law on Cultural Heritage. As known, Annex 5 of the Ahtisaari Plan states that the SOC should have “full discretion of management, reconstruction, and access to its premises” (Annex 5, Point 1.5). This document has never been annulled or rendered void, as it remains in effect due to Pristina’s willingness to accept the provisions of the Ahtisaari Plan, which led to Kosovo being recognised by a number of countries. Regrettably, we witness ongoing efforts by the authorities in Pristina to either repeal or reinterpret all that remains of this Annex 5 of the document, which eventually only in part entered into the Kosovo legislation.

The Law on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, envisioned by the Ahtisaari Plan to be enacted in accordance with the principles of Annex 5, has yet to be prepared and adopted by the Assembly of Kosovo in line with the undertaken responsibilities and existing procedures for particularly sensitive laws. This issue has been discussed for several years at the Council for Implementation and Monitoring of Special Protected Zones (IMC). The Council hasn’t convened for three years as the current Kosovo government unilaterally rejected the agreement from November 2020, concerning the transit road issue next to the Visoki Dečani Monastery, even though it was jointly adopted and signed by the EU, OSCE, two Kosovo ministers of the previous government, SOC, KFOR, and the Mayor of Dečani. The Kosovo government’s disrespect for already made decisions and agreements is the key reason this Council still does not function.

Hence, we believe it is essential for issues, such as the damage at Banjska Monastery, to be resolved within the context of the ongoing Brussels dialogue, which among other things, anticipates the formalisation of the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo, rather than resolving these issues from positions of authority and threats, while the government concurrently openly disregards the Law on Special Protected Zones and the ruling of the Constitutional Court of Kosovo concerning the land of the Visoki Dečani Monastery. This ruling hasn’t been implemented for seven years and is completely ignored by the current Kosovo government.

Regrettably, the accusations that our Church is conducting allegedly unauthorised protection of its religious sites, which are simultaneously in active use by our Church, are utterly provocative and wholly inaccurate. The Diocese of Raška and Prizren has its cultural heritage protection service led by Ms. Svetlana Hadžić. All restoration work conducted over the years, particularly following the wave of attacks by armed Kosovo Albanian extremists on the holy sites of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) since 1999, has been conducted in collaboration with international and SOC-engaged experts. From 2005-2010, our Church cooperated under the auspices of the Council of Europe and with the representatives of the then-Ministry of Culture of Kosovo, repairing damage to around 30 damaged or destroyed churches and monasteries that suffered during the March Pogrom of 2004. However, the relationship of Kosovo institutions towards the SOC was more tolerant then, and there was place for cooperation. Unfortunately, the situation has substantially deteriorated, especially in the last three years. In an atmosphere where SOC sites continue to be exposed to vandalism, thefts, and attacks, which the Kosovo police largely fail or are unwilling to resolve or categorise as criminal offences with a religious or nationalist background, it is entirely unjustified to accuse the Church of neglecting its religious sites.

We also seize this opportunity to remind that the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo is facing numerous unresolved issues, among them, the already mentioned refusal to execute the 2016 ruling of the Constitutional Court of Kosovo regarding the registration of the land of the Visoki Dečani Monastery and the issue of constructing a transit road to Montenegro through the Special protective zone of the Dečani Monastery (assessed as a violation of the law on Special protective zones by the legal teams of the EU and OSCE). Recently, the issue of draft laws aimed at abolishing the existing rights of the SOC has arisen, and the Kosovo police continue to deny access to our clergy and faithful and the performance of religious rites in the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Pristina, despite it being a church built in compliance with the previously existing laws, and registered along with its land as the property of the SOC in the cadaster. The negative attitude of Kosovo institutions towards the Church and our identity continues, accompanied by attempts at cultural appropriation of Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries, and frequent media texts disseminating statements of certain “experts” and “historians” promoting open religious and national hatred.

For years, we have been unable to restore or access a number of our religious sites (damaged since 1999) due to the prohibition by Kosovo police or opposition from municipal authorities. We emphasise that these problems are clearly recognized internationally, regularly discussed with the EU, OSCE, and ambassadors of the Quint and other countries, and mentioned annually in official reports as a serious failure in the functioning of Kosovo society in relation to the religious freedoms of the SOC (e.g., annual reports of the US State Department). Such a behaviour contradicts the fundamental principles of the rule of law and the protection of human and minority rights and does not contribute to building a democratic society.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has never been closed to dialogue, but we believe that dialogue must be based on at least a minimal degree of trust and that the aforementioned urgent issues concerning the rule of law, legal provisions, and fundamental religious freedoms must be resolved promptly.

Gračanica, October 13, 2023.