Kosovo, Serbia row over medieval heritage before UNESCO vote

Sitting in the courtyard of the 700-year-old Gracanica monastery in Kosovo, ethnic Serb farmer Marija Krstic frets about the future of her beloved church, a world heritage site at the centre of a tug-of-war between Pristina and Belgrade.

“This is our sacred church. I was baptised in the monastery and grew up here,” said 62-year-old Krstic, as Japanese tourists photographed the towering red-brick monument, considered a jewel of medieval Serbian Orthodox architecture.

“This is our monastery and no one else’s. How can someone now say that Albanians can take care of it?” she said, while her friends sitting next to her on a wooden bench tried to stop her speaking to AFP.

The women belong to the minority ethnic Serb community in Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian and Muslim territory that broke away from Serbia in 2008. Its independence is recognised by more than 100 countries, but staunchly denied by Belgrade.

The United Nations cultural body UNESCO is scheduled to vote on Monday in Paris on whether to accept Kosovo as a member, after its executive board recommended the move last month — despite Kosovo not being a UN member state.

– Leap forward –

UNESCO membership would put the government in Pristina in charge of managing all of Kosovo’s heritage, including Gracanica and three other Serbian Orthodox Christian sites that are on UNESCO’s endangered world heritage list.

The move would represent a leap forward for Kosovo in its bid for full international recognition, and unlock millions in funds for culture and education in the impoverished former province.

But the proposal is passionately opposed by UNESCO member Serbia, which considers Kosovo the cradle of its identity and religion.

Until now, Belgrade has been in charge of proposing sites in Kosovo for world heritage status.

It says sacred Orthodox monuments would be at serious risk if Kosovo takes over, citing attacks and looting since the two sides fought a war in 1998 and 1999.

“We are deeply concerned for our cultural-historic heritage,” Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic told UNESCO on Wednesday, part of a diplomatic drive by Belgrade to block Kosovo’s admission.

The head of the Serbian Church, Patriarch Irinej, said that “if force is deployed” to deprive Serbia of its heritage, they would defend it “by peaceful means or by force”.

Kosovo insists that it will preserve and protect all heritage sites, regardless of religious affiliation.

“In Serbia, Kosovo’s bid for UNESCO membership has been misrepresented as an attempt to appropriate Serbian cultural heritage located in Kosovo,” Bekim Collaku, Kosovo’s minister for European integration, told AFP.

“This has no basis in reality, and has lowered the level of the debate and tainted it with nationalism.”

He said that UNESCO’s support to develop education and science would be “indispensable” given Kosovo’s predominantly young population, and that membership would help promote “lasting peace” in the region.

– ‘Under siege’ –

Both sides of the debate have launched fervent social media campaigns.

Among the most vocal has been Orthodox monk Father Sava Janjic, who resides at the Decani monastery in Kosovo and gained international recognition as the “cyber monk” for his online posts during the 1990s conflict.

“We have been facing serious difficulties since the end of the Kosovo war in 1999. Four armed attacks… have created for us an atmosphere of living under a siege,” Janjic told AFP.

He said a NATO-led peacekeeping force still protects Decani, a UNESCO-listed monument rich in 14th-century frescoes.

Janjic is calling for a postponement of the UNESCO vote and a dialogue with Serbia in Brussels to defuse tensions, expressing concern over “an ongoing process of imposing Albanian identity on our sites”.

“This is not only a matter of edifices and our emotions but our freedom of religion, because our sites are living places of worship and not museums,” he said.

In and around Gracanica, several Kosovo residents said they had little knowledge of the term UNESCO.

Muslim farmer Ruzhdi Pacolli, selling red peppers from his tractor on the roadside, said local people had “long since overcome” any tensions, and he enjoyed going to buy cheese from the Orthodox community.

But he believed the monastery should come under the control of Kosovo’s government, promising “we wouldn’t harm a single hair on their head”.

“You can’t live in one country and dream at the same time that you’re in another country,” he said.


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