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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 18:27 GMT
Christmas in Kosovo - under siege
Nato soldier helps nun into car
Nuns cannot move around without military escorts
Matthew Price

Orthodox Christians in Kosovo are preparing for their third Christmas since the United Nations took over control of the southern Serbian province.

Much has changed there since Nato launched its bombing campaign to halt Serb repression of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority - under the rule of the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

The United Nations says attacks against Serbs by ethnic Albanians have been dramatically reduced, but those few Serbs still living in Kosovo fear they remain a target.

None more so perhaps than the province's monks and nuns.

It is six o'clock in the morning when I meet up with the nuns of Pec.

Armed escort

The temperature is near freezing, and the nuns are off to church - with an armed guard.

Sister Anastasija,  of Pec, beside an armoured car
Sister Anastasija: Without soldiers, monasteries would be isolated
Nine nuns with seven soldiers from the international peace-force, ride in a convoy of army vehicles staffed by Nato soldiers.

Kosovo's monks and nuns say this is the only safe way for them to travel around the province.

Most of their fellow Serbs agree it is not safe for them to travel around on their own.

An hour-and-a-half later we arrive at an army checkpoint. In Kosovo, even nuns need to be checked.

map of region
Sister Anastasija has no doubt of the importance of the security operation to her, and her order: "We can only move around with their help. Otherwise we would be totally isolated. And not just us, but all the other monasteries in Kosovo. We're almost under siege. We'd be in a sort of prison if it weren't for them."

Security is certainly tight at Kosovo's monasteries, and Decani is typical.

This is one of the most important religious sites for Orthodox Serbs. The Serbian Church was founded in Kosovo more than 700 years ago.

Inside, the fountain flows peacefully - as it has for centuries. The same cannot be said about Decani.

Firing line

Twice in the past it has come under mortar attack. More recently two nearby churches were targeted.

The attacks were blamed on a minority of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.

Albanians here were repressed by the Milosevic regime. When Serb forces - under international pressure - withdrew three years ago, ethnic Albanians started a wave of revenge attacks against Serbs.

Many Albanians accuse the Orthodox church of fanning the Serb nationalism that brought Milosevic to power.

A Kosovo monk makes a religious icon at Decani monastery
Monks make icons to keep tradition alive
And along with their wish for an independent Kosovo, some want the church, a focus for the Serb community, to leave.

Father Sava, who is in charge of Decani, says the criticism levelled at the church is unfair:

"I must admit that Albanians suffered a lot, but this monastery and this church took a very strong position against Milosevic's policy, and extreme nationalism no matter from what side it came.

"In this monastery we sheltered 200 Albanians during the bombing period and organised humanitarian aid, which is something which even Albanians now recognise, though they are not ready to do anything for us now, when they are in a position to help."

Proud tradition

In the monastery's workshop they make religious icons. But few Serb tourists come here these days - the icons are sold to the peacekeepers.

One of the monks, Arsenije, underlines why he and his fellow monks feel it vital to maintain their age-old customs: "Since this was the tradition of the Serbian land it is very important for us. Since we can hardly call this Serbia today. But we are here and I guess we are not going to go anywhere."

"And this is a way of showing that the traditions of the Serbian church are still alive?" I ask. "Yes, that is the point."

The sense of fear among the few Serbs still in Kosovo is genuine.

They are being told they can not hide behind their protectors for ever, and that some day both sides have to learn to trust each other.

See also:

18 Dec 01 | Media reports
05 Oct 00 | Europe
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