A heritage in need of protection

03/10/2011

Political and ethnic tensions still pose a threat to Serb cultural and religious sites.

By Linda Karadaku for Southeast European Times in Pristina -- 03/10/11

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Kosovo authorities say preserving cultural sites is a top priority. [Reuters]

At Decani monastery in western Kosovo, life goes on the way it has done for centuries. Around 30 brothers spend their days in prayer or religious contemplation, as well as tending the monastery grounds and engaging in activities such as icon painting and wood carving.

The site, home to some of the region's best-preserved medieval frescoes, is on UNESCO's World Heritage List. But it is also under threat. Amid ongoing tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, its status as a major Serb religious and cultural site makes it a target for Albanian nationalists.

"Although the monastery has made additional steps to establish better contact with the municipality, radical political elements continue to pose a threat to our monastery," Father Sava Janjic told SETimes. In addition to the monastery itself, around a dozen neighbouring sites are under protection by KFOR and the Kosovo Police.

Under the Ahtisaari Plan, the monastery is one of 45 religious, historical and cultural objects listed as special protected zones. Although the emphasis now is on keeping them safe from attack, the purpose of the zones is much broader, Father Sava explains.

The goal, he says, is to "protect vulnerable cultural heritage -- from industrial activity, road construction, deforestation, and anything that might change the shape of their cultural and natural surroundings."

Authorities in Pristina say sites such as Decani are significant to the country as a whole, and that the government is committed to protecting them.

"Kosovo cultural heritage is on the ministry's list of top priorities," Minister of Culture, Youth and Sports Memli Krasniqihe said. "We are willing to work in co-ordination with the civil society, international partners, religious communities and others in preserving cultural heritage."

But some in Kosovo say the root problems have not yet been solved.

"Kosovo's majority population of Albanians has horrific memories of misuse of their religious sites during the Milosevic regime," said Avni Zogiani, the head of Kosovo NGO Cohu. "Moreover, establishing the Orthodox Church objects as solely the property of the Serb Orthodox Church has added to the already existing resentment."

"We will need a serious political engagement to show that the Serb churches have undergone a catharsis and [are] no longer a source of hatred, inciting ethnic intolerance," he told SETimes.

Qazim Namani, a historian and government official in charge of cultural heritage, says the key is to depoliticise the issue.

"Cultural and historical heritage should be protected by Kosovo's professional institutions, from the Kosovo Institute for the Protection of the Cultural Monuments," Namani said. "I think the current institutional organisation [for protection] did not yield desired results."

The current approach, he said, simply sustains existing tensions.

Father Sava disagrees, saying that protection of Decani should not be linked to political manoeuvring. Protecting such sites, he said, "is an issue of heritage preservation which is seriously threatened from being either physically destroyed or deprived of its religious and cultural identity".

"Ownership and property rights of the Serbian Orthodox church must be respected," he added.

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A September 22nd report by the International Civilian Office (ICO) found progress has been made in some areas, but much remains to be done.

Most of the 45 monuments listed are in more or less in the same condition as in 2007, the ICO said. It noted improvements in security and better relations between respective local authorities and Serbian Orthodox clergy.

"There is a clear need for better procedures to properly protect and manage monuments and protective zones. It is recommended that competent authorities take swift action ensuring a sustainable and integrated preservation of the Comprehensive Status Proposal for monuments and sites," the report said.

The report "clearly shows a need for more effective protection through enhanced planning and monitoring of affected sites," said ICO head Pieter Feith.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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