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“The Earthly Kingdom is short and temporary, …

“The Earthly Kingdom is short and temporary, but the Heavenly Kingdom is unto the ages of ages”

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Vladimir Putyatin, Candidate of History, Associate Professor, Department of the History of Southern and Western Slavs, Faculty of History of Moscow State University

Visiting Kosovo and Metohija in the early 20th century was a French historian Albert Malet. Here are his impressions: “Every year thousands of unfortunate Serbian peasants disappear, some have to emigrate, others are killed. Actually, Christians feel that death is close behind them. The place looks like a corner of a forest in Congo or a scene set in the Middle Ages and moved to our Europe and forgotten in our 20th century.” The amazing thing is that these words sound as if they were said about the developments in Serbia today.

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The Serbian people who underwent many terrible ordeals in the 20th century, including the Balkan Wars, World Wars I and II, and the slaughterous interethnic conflicts occurred in the period of disintegration of Yugoslavia, have de facto lost the cradle of their state and “the holy place of their forefathers, the land with many old Orthodox churches and monasteries of transcendent spiritual and cultural significance,” as His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia once said about Kosovo and Metohija. There had been build over one thousand Orthodox churches and monasteries in a rather small territory. The Church of Our Lady of Ljeviš, the Gračanica Monastery, the Patriarchate of Peć Monastery, and the Visoki Dečani Monastery are placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Dečani Monastery and its brethren who solemnly celebrate the commemoration day of the Great Martyr King Stefan of Dečani should be mentioned in particular. Every year, several hundred pilgrims from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro and Russia are coming to the monastery without regard to the hostile encirclement. This is not fortuitous, as the Dečani Monastery and its brethren have symbolizing the stronghold of Orthodoxy during many centuries of the turbulent events of historic significance. Worth mentioning here are the following words of St. Nikolaj of Serbia (Velemirović): “It is from the Church as if from a spring that the river of the Serbian history, sometimes clean and sometimes bloodstained, but always deep, has been flowing.”

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The founder of the monastery had not lived to see its construction completed in 1335, but his incorrupt holy relics were put into an icon-case, and many Serbs and Albanians were healed by them. On the night before the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, an angel appeared to Prince Lazar and asked him about his choice, to which the prince replied: “The earthly kingdom is short and temporary, but the Heavenly Kingdom is unto the ages of ages.” The Serbs were defeated in the fierce battle. The Turks broke into the Dečani monastery and destroyed the iconostasis. Ultimately, the monastery fell under the power of the Ottoman Empire after 1455. The monastery was granted some privileges, but they were poor protection for the monks against constant attacks and robberies. The migration of many Serbs to the Habsburg Empire in the late 17th century dealt a severe blow to Kosovo and Metohija as large territories were abandoned and many inhabitants converted to Islam. In the second half of the 18th century there remained only one monk in the devastated and ravaged monastery. However, little by little the monastic life began to revive. After the First Serbian Uprising, donations started to come from Serbian princes for the renovation of the monastery. In 1862, five bells were cast in Russia as a gift to the Dečani monastery. By that time, only a small number of Serbs had stayed on in the neighborhood; there appeared more and more Albanians who attacked and robbed not only the Dečani monks, but also the pilgrims on the way to the monastery. The situation was difficult, but Russian Consul Ivan Jastrebov referred to the monastery as “the heart of Old Serbia, setting the direction for its moral life and church history as a whole.”

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In 1878, the Albanians founded the League of Prizren to struggle for the independence of Albania, which prompted a new wave of attacks on the Serbian residents and brethren of the monastery. A few monks died in those attacks. In 1902, Bishop Nićifor of Raška and Prizren turned to the sister Russian Orthodox Church for help to revive the monastery suffering through hardships in a hostile encirclement. The next year, a group of Russian monks with schemahieromonk Kirill (Abramov) at the head arrived at the monastery. Thanks to them the spiritual life got a new impulse: divine services were celebrated every day, a school for local children and a hospital were opened. The time of World War I was a grievous page in the history of the monastery. Bulgarian soldiers tried to take away valuables and the relics of St. Stefan of Dečani, but their carts could not move beyond the monastery lands, and by the Providence of God, all taken objects were returned. The spiritual life resumed in 1918, but the church and other buildings were in terrible dilapidation. Following World War II and communists’ coming to power an agrarian reform took place and a large part of the monastery’s land property was confiscated. In 1949, the monastery was set on fire. A momentous event for the Serbian Orthodox Church took place in 1957 when the Holy Synod elected Pavle (Stojčević) the Bishop of Raška and Prizren. During the long thirty-three years the future Patriarch of Serbia and his flock were experiencing daily pressure and harassment from the Albanians. He was trying to reason with the authorities, who remained aloof from the situation, and to prevent the Serbs from leaving their homeland. But that was just the beginning of the ordeals awaiting the Serbian Church. In the 1990s, the slaughterous interethnic and religious conflicts shook Yugoslavia. The land of Kosovo was not spared either: the Albanians rose to an armed struggle for the separation from Yugoslavia and Serbia. Because of the constant threats and reprisals the Serbian population had to leave Kosovo. In these circumstances, the Serbian Church tried in every possible way to help its flock and keep it safe. The Serbs began to settle near the Dečani. After bombing attacks on Yugoslavia in 1999, the Italians of the Kosovo Force (KFOR) were again to protect the Dečani. Even this fact would not stop the Albanians: they fired grenade launchers at the monastery in 2002, 2004 and 2007.

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On 17 March 2004, well-organized attacks on the Serbs swept Kosovo and Metohija. As a result of the attacks, nineteen persons were killed and over one hundred and forty injured; thousands of the Serbs left their ruined houses; thirty-five churches and monasteries were desecrated, destroyed or burnt down. Such atrocities were often committed in full view of the uncaring KFOR servicemen, who had been called up to safeguard the security and peace in this long-suffering land.  

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In 2008 the Albanians declared independence of Kosovo, which up to the present has not been recognized by Russia, China and many other countries. The reaction of Patriarch Pavle of Serbia came in his 2008 Paschal Message in the following words: “The powers that be… want to hold a collective execution of the Serbian Orthodox people, to break them down and erase in order to make them a faceless mass and tear out their heart… By the will of Christ, we bear witness to the powers’ lawless actions and hypocrisy that remind us of Pilate washing his hands stained with blood of the Righteous One.”

The pressure on the local Serbs only intensified after that. One by one international organizations were leaving Kosovo. Thus, since 2013 the Dečani has remained the only Serbian monastery under the protection of the KFOR international contingent. In 2020, Serbian mass media announced the sad news about the death of the last Serb of the Dečani. But despite all kinds of mistreatment and persecution, the Serbs in Kosovo and Metohija with their very existence seem to confirm the words of Metropolitan Hilarion once addressed to them: “Do not leave this land! As long as you stay here, the Orthodox faith will hold on in this long-suffering land, and the Lord will abundantly reward you with His divine grace.”

Author
Vladimir Putyatin
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