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NATO was blind to religion’s role in Balkans


Most Americans understood NATO’s war against Serbia as a “just war” against the evil dictator Slobodan Milosevic, whose policies in Kosovo were seen as genocide. Some people saw it differently. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author who returned to Russia after years of exile in Vermont, charged that he could see “no difference in the behavior of NATO and Hitler.”

His statement, although extreme, reflected the anger of many Russians. Meanwhile, riot police in Greece had to protect the U.S. Embassy in Athens from anti-American student demonstrators carrying signs like “Yankee, go home” and “America, murderer of nations.”

The backlash in Russia and Greece highlights a significant aspect of the Balkan crisis that the Clinton administration generally overlooked. Many Russians and Greeks sympathize with Serbia because they share a common identity as Eastern Orthodox Christians. For example, Patriarch Alexei II and Archbishop Christodoulos, the leaders of the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches, were bitter critics of NATO’s war.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration has been blind to the significance of religion in its Balkan policy, beginning with its indifference to the Serbian Orthodox church.

For most Americans, Christianity has but two wings, Catholic and Protestant. In fact, the first great division of Christianity was not the Reformation in the 16th century but the Great Schism in the 11th century, which led to the separation of the Roman and Byzantine, or Eastern Orthodox, churches. Later, the Ottoman Turks overran the Byzantine Empire. In the wake of that event a fellowship of some 15 sister churches emerged, the largest of which are the Russian, the Romanian, the Bulgarian, the Greek and the Serbian Orthodox churches. In the United States, some Orthodox believers relate to the churches of their ancestors’ homeland, and over 1 million are members of the autonomous Orthodox Church of America. Orthodoxy is a major global religion.

Since Milosevic had backed down quickly when the issue was Bosnia, it was assumed that he would act similarly in Kosovo. But they are not the same. Kosovo is not only the site of the famous battle in 1389 when the Serbs lost to the Turks. Kosovo also contains the historical roots of the Serbian Orthodox church and many ancient monasteries. No Serbian leader could easily agree to a hostile foreign occupation of Kosovo.

Ironically, by ignoring the religious dimension, NATO overlooked and undermined the positive contributions of Orthodox leaders, particularly in Kosovo itself. Patriarch Pavle, leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church, has aligned his church wih the opposition movement. After the bombing stopped, the church’s Holy Synod demanded Milosevic’s resignation.

In Kosovo, Bishop Artemije has been a leading critic of the regime and a determined advocate of ethnic cooperation. Prior to the war, he traveled repeatedly to Western countries to speak out against the violence of extremist forces on both sides of the conflict. His views can be read on the diocese’s Web site http://decani.yunet.com/home.html.

Bishop Artemije and the site’s Web master, Fr. Sava of the Decani Monastery, were outraged at NATO’s war. They argued that the bombing destroyed their attempts to build an anti-Milosevic democratic resistance, and peace between Serbs and Albanians.

Instead of reaching out to the Serbian Orthodox church, NATO added insult to injury by ignoring calls for an Easter cease-fire. Orthodox Christians consider Easter the climax of the year because on that day Christ overcame death and prepared for the eventual “deification” of humanity. Orthodox Easter fell on April 11, a week after Easter in the West, and three weeks into the NATO bombardment. Russian Patriarch Alexei II, in a radio broadcast shortly before Orthodox Easter, stated that if NATO continued bombing on Easter, “they are not Christians; they are barbarians.”

NATO bombed anyway. Some might suggest that this is another example of the secularization of modern life. Yet Clinton himself is an active churchgoer who feels at home in the company of ministers. Undoubtedly, Clinton would have been reluctant to bomb on Christmas, the most sacred holiday in the West. Recall last December when Clinton hurried to attack Iraq before the beginning of Ramadan, because, he said, it would be “profoundly offensive” to begin bombing during Islam’s holiest month.

Although the existence of 100 million Orthodox believers should be as easy to discover as the address of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the Clinton team is not entirely at fault. You can browse for a long time through the catalogs of America’s most prestigious colleges, universities and seminaries before finding a course on Eastern Orthodoxy. Several Catholic priests have told me that there was no course on the Orthodox tradition in their seminary education. There are exceptions, but overall American higher education has done a much better job of teaching about Islam, Judaism and Buddhism than about Orthodoxy.

Now that the post-bombardment stage of the Kosovo struggle has begun, the Clinton administration, and all of us, need to deepen our acquaintance with the Orthodox tradition and its role in the conflict, and also in the healing that must begin. In this respect, there are some useful models. David Steele, the director of the Religion and Conflict Resolution Project in the Former Yugoslavia housed at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in London, has organized inter-confessional dialogue for several years in the region. There was also the delegation of the National Council of Churches composed of Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews and Moslems led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, which won the release of the three American prisoners of war.

The Clinton administration was peeved by the National Council of Churches’ action, but in the end, reaching out to the Serbian church will be an important key to the future.

Greg Gaut teaches European and Russian history at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. He can be reached at ggaut@smumn.edu

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999