Many Americans, thinking of Kosovo, view Kosovo to be one of those places with plenty of tragic stories that are shown regularly on CNN. Some may even remember that our country, as part of NATO, participated in bombings there in 1999 to protect Albanian refugees as part of a war that lasted for over two months. Most Americans pay Kosovo little mind, viewing it to be the staging ground of a conflict that holds no important consequence for the United States.
However, Kosovo is more essential to the security of America and the West than many people realize. The ability of our country, our NATO allies and the United Nations to promote stable governance that ensures minority rights very well could make the difference between peace and war in an historically, and continuingly volatile region, the Balkans, situated between Adriatic and Black Seas. Islamists recognize the strategic importance of Kosovo and, left unchallenged by a complacent West, could use it to gain a strategic foothold in Europe.
The Serbian population is the minority. They are predominantly Christian and face persecution from an energized Albanian majority. Right after a wave of violence shook the country in March, Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, then the Managing Editor of The National Interest and a Senior Fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy wrote in National Review Online the article “Kristallnacht in Kosovo.” In it he stated “?Kosovo’s Serbs have for years been warning of the real nature of Albanian nationalism, and the U.N. and the West have assumed they were exaggerating.”
Recently, a small contingent of American leaders in religion and public policy took a trip to Kosovo that was sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, a conservative think tank that examines how our own national security can be impacted by religious issues across the globe. Advisory Board members of the Institute include such noted policymakers and religious leaders as Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA); Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA); Rev. Richard Cizik, Vice President for Government Affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals; Dr. Richard Land, President of The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and Rabbi Harold S. White, Senior Jewish Chaplin at Georgetown University.
Participants in the trip included Dr. Robert Edgar, a former Congressman from Pennsylvania who now serves as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, which represents mainline denominations (and also some Orthodox Churches), and William J. Murray, President of the Religious Freedom Coalition. Edgar was known as a very liberal Congressman, Murray regularly attends the weekly strategy lunches for conservative policymakers that I host when Congress is in session. Despite the differences in outlook between some of the members, the participants did not turn their bus into a “Beirut on wheels.” The participants were sobered by the realization that the conflict in Kosovo is one that has caused lives to be lost, spilled blood, broken families and destroyed churches. A member of the trip, Rev. Michael Faulkner, Senior Minister of the Central Baptist Church in Harlem, remarked that he had never seen racism that strong among people who were the same color.
Murray noted that the religious dimension is starting to sharpen more than it has in the past. Many Albanian Muslims are marginally religious and, up to now, the relations between them and Albanian Christians (mostly Orthodox, some Roman Catholic) have been stable compared to the animosity directed by Albanian Muslims against the Serbs. Middle Eastern organizations are devoting great resources to building mosques and other Islamic institutions. Given the poverty of Kosovo, it could easily become a breeding ground for Islamic extremism as we have seen in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The history of Kosovo, only some 4,200 square miles, is quite complicated: It became Christian in 874 A.D., only to become part of the Ottoman Empire when Muslims invaded Serbia in the late 14th Century. In 1912, Kosovo and Methohija were liberated from the Ottoman Empire and incorporated into Serbia, and then entered into as (at least theoretically) an autonomous state at Yugoslavia’s founding in 1919. Kosovo has remained part of Serbia since then, with the exception of World War II when Kosovo was administered as a part of Greater Albania by the Axis powers. During that time, churches and monasteries were destroyed.
Throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s there had been a simmering conflict between the Albanians — largely, but not completely, Muslim — and the Serbs who generally belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Albanians in Serbia collaborated with the Nazis against the Serbs. In 1945, Yugoslavia became a Communist country, and the authorities covered up ethnic tensions through force, intimidation, mass resettlement of Serbs from Kosovo, and ideological propaganda. Yugoslavia’s hold over its provinces diminished over time, greater autonomy was granted to Kosovo, a state of Serbia with a population composed of ethnic Serbs, Albanians, and Montenegrons. After Yugoslavian Communist Dictator Tito died, the tensions between ethnic and religious groups resurfaced.
Eventually, as Communist rule weakened, Slobodan Milosevic, a Serb, became the President of Serbia, only to crack down on the Albanian extremists bent on seeking independence through force of arms which led to bloody confrontations in 1998 between the Serbian troops and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a largely Albanian terrorist outfit. A ceasefire negotiated by NATO fell apart, setting the stage for the NATO air strikes that started in March 1999, designed to bring Milosevic to heel.
Our participation in the effort was premised on our being part of NATO; we ignored Russian arguments in favor of the Serbs. Some have called this “Monica’s War” because it came soon after the Clinton impeachment. However, our effort also led to the removal of the KLA from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.
Many Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo became refugees. A peace agreement was signed after a 78-day bombing campaign. Control of Kosovo was divided between German, French and American sectors, with the primary duties of peacekeeping divided between the armies of NATO countries and agencies of the United Nations.
Neither NATO nor the United Nations has been effective in keeping a lid on the animosity. For one reason, the missions of the armies are mixed. French and German soldiers are there only to protect persons. Our soldiers, numbering less than 2,000, are there to protect both persons and property. Kosovo’s population is beset by high joblessness and substandard living conditions as well as crime and ethnic and religious rivalry.
Since the end of the conflict in June1999, violence has been perpetrated against Serbian Orthodox Churches and holy sites. Over 120 holy places, including many that date back to the Middle Ages, had been desecrated or destroyed by December 2003. At the same time, at least 200,000 Kosovar Serbs and other non-Albanians have been “cleansed” from their homes, only 10,000 have returned. In March 2003, apparently false reports of violence perpetrated by Serbian children against young Albanians ignited what was called the “March Pogrom” in which 35 churches and monasteries were destroyed. Strong suspicion exists among many in Kosovo, even those within NATO’s Kosovo Force(KFOR) peacekeeping forces, that the March Pogrom was anything but a spontaneous event.
Members of the delegation visited the Devic Monastery — founded in the 15th Century — which had been ransacked and burned by a mob.
French troops took the nuns to safety but they refrained from doing anything further, given that the definition of their mission was to protect people. In fact, the French troops left an ailing nun to be attacked by the mob. Thankfully, she escaped unharmed. The looters smashed crosses on graves, even trying to open the sarcophagus of a saint (whose relics had already been moved). This unfortunate monastery had been rebuilt after having been badly damaged by the (terrorist?) KLA in 1999.
William J. Murray has written an extensive report of his trip. He reminds people that the act of destroying a church extends far beyond shattering glass and bricks. He says the aggressor is taking dead aim at demolishing “a people’s whole history, religion, and culture.” More than Christian Churches were destroyed, so were Christian libraries, graves and cemeteries in what can only be interpreted as an effort to literally eradicate the historical presence of Christianity.
Murray found that our State Department officials in Kosovo favor the Albanians rather than the beleaguered Serbs. Our official government representative wants to force the Serbs to learn the Albanian language even though Serbs lived there for generations before many of the Albanians arrived. It is Murray’s opinion that the best thing would be to have Kosovo rejoin Serbia and to create a unified national government of Serbs and Albanians that will police it rather than a UN body or the institutions which have been persecuting Christians. The worst thing in his estimation would be if Kosovo became independent and eventually become part of the European Union, which could allow the region to become a gateway for Arab terrorists to enter Europe.
The Institute on Religion and Public Policy (IRPP) plans to issue reports on how this mission to Kosovo can be productive. One step would be to remove the current KFOR policy structure and provide a unified command structure that more clearly defines instructions to provide protection for both people and property. The IRPP is not talking about increasing our presence there, but enabling the troops — ours and those of other countries — to be more effective. The term the IRPP uses is “finish what we started.” Americans interested in justice and religious freedom should be on the watch for this report.
There will be no quick and easy solution to this region and its problems. The animosity is centuries old and is divided along ethnic lines. We should worry that the conflict in this strategic area threatens to become increasingly religious. Indeed, the defilement of churches and monasteries as well as the serious amounts of Islamist money coming into Kosovo should send a strong warning. I cannot say that I am supportive of our troops sent on peacekeeping missions such as this one, but since they are there and if they have to remain there the United States Government should press for revamping the structure to increase their effectiveness.
The worst thing would be to have a fledgling Islamist state situated in Europe, something that creates worry among people such as Murray and Joseph K. Grieboski, the Founder and President of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy. No doubt they are correct in that belief. Still, there is only so much we can do around the world. If there are ideas that can avoid a substantial commitment of US money and manpower but stop the violence and help to bring stability to Kosovo, I would like to hear it. As of now, the fate of Kosovo is in the hands of the NATO, the UN, Islamic interests, and, most importantly, the hearts and minds of the Albanian majority.